What’s Left? is a book by Nick Cohen; review by Igor Veloso;
What’s Left? looks at how: the Left picked up and then dropped the opponents of Saddam Hussein; the European Union stood by and allowed Slobodan Milosevic to ethnically cleanse the Balkans; the reasons for the liberal middle class’s disillusion with democracy and free speech; the instant willingness of respectable writers to excuse Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks; the inability of the British Liberal Democrats and European Social Democrats to oppose George W. Bush while supporting a free Iraq; the growth of polite antisemitism; and the propensity of liberals everywhere to portray a global clerical fascist movement as a rational response to Western provocation. – Nick Cohen
This book took me almost a year to finally dedicate myself to reading, if not more. It was recommended to me at the same time that progressive American Democrats, and their anti-fascist allies, decided that censoring everything that did not align with their agenda was the most effective, and correct, way of dealing with the country’s problems, and bring justice to same groups they boast about protecting. The book attracted me for two very simple reasons: the first was the fact that the author was, or had been most of his life, on the left, and brought an inside perspective that aimed to criticize this new revolutionary spirit that had much in common with the regimes they criticize; the second reason is in my shared confusion that this phenomenon creates in my head, and I genuinely want to understand the left, although the conclusion I draw today is that even they do not understand each other, but they are still gaining influence and some elections.
We have the freedom to vote, lobby, protest, write and speak, and the Left itself makes full use of these same freedoms, yet they never seem to be grateful for it, and they want more and more, not taking advantage of its benefits due to their mentality of constant ‘no pasarán’, an infinite state of revolution. They painted liberalism as an authoritarian ideology where responsibility is seen as an interventionist, and they assume that it has already failed, not wanting to continue the process. They have taken over institutions, to the point that the media, private companies, and the academy give them shelter and support, yet they still believe to be against the system, even when in certain countries the government itself is left-wing. It seems that we are finally witnessing a resurgence of the socialist antechamber towards communism.
He uses a certain terminology. Nick Cohen uses the Left as a generalization: far-left means the remaining Leninists, who think they can gain power through coercion. There are few, but significant, infiltrated in larger groups including the academy. Sometimes he calls them “Chomskyans”, sometimes nihilists, because his program is never positive but cynical. There is an enormous divide between the totalitarian and democratic left. Between the working class and the middle class, there is this same cleavage, where the first struggle for better wages and conditions, and the second for social and sexual liberalism. Unions are called by the author as the old left.
Liberals – not the deregatory term Americans use – from the left middle class are Liberal Democrats, Liberal Christian Democrats, European Gaulists and Democrats in the US, and there is still a supportive working class and Democratic middle class. Cohen fails to classify the New Left (New Labor) well, and classifies the Left-Liberal as the entire left. Take note that the book is from 2007 and Cohen is British, son of a Jewish father – something important due to the strong positions described in his book, especially when there is a part of the left, neo-racist, that manages to be anti-Semitic “for equality. ” Any mention of ‘cancellation’ or ‘left today’, or something more recent, will be more based on my reflections that I transpired from 2007 to 2021, so they are not from the author.
Apparently it was well received, but it seems that the criticism I maintain today is similar to many critics of the time. Could it be that all the situations described in this book were catalysts for the state of the left today? Did he simply point out some situations that favored his thesis, even if they were true and had some impact on the intellectual circle where they occurred, but at the end of the day did they spill over? However, my position is not the same as most of these critics. Their logic comes from thinking that these examples are from the fringe and from crazy people who speak very loudly but don’t make a dent in politics. It is a position similar to former Lincoln Project members, like Tom Nichols, who spent time ignoring Democratic progressives and radicals, with “stupid” ideas (withdrawing funding from the police, racial quotas, etc.) in order to support Democratic candidates on a mission to remove Donald Trump from power, and it turns out that these movements have now helped President Joe Biden win the elections and he, in the midst of his moderate virtue, is paying them favors through Executive Orders. And in response, Republicans embraced groups like Qanon, and the nostalgia of pre-Civil Rights times, and joined an orgy of madmen.
It is always worth remembering that many of the decisions that change the game and affect the direction of the world, do not always originate in the Senate or in Parliament, but outside of it, through think-tanks and party headquarters. The human factor is of immense importance. There will certainly be cases, such as a diplomatic visit, where the visit ends suddenly but apparently everything went smoothly, and the media doesn’t really care about that, when in reality someone in the delegation said something he shouldn’t and the local representative was upset and ended right there the conversation, kicking everyone out. The people who are in politics today come from a small and familiar world, a great chance that almost everyone knows everyone to some degree. It would not be improbable to know that a type of the right-wing portuguese Marialva who goes on television can be the cousin of a TV presenter on another channel; great chance that today’s most influential youth in Portuguese politics, is largely from around Cascais; It will not be surprising that decision makers in Lisbon, London and Washington, whether in politics or in the media, study, eat and sleep in the same blocks. It is therefore not surprising that a kind of “collective thinking” is formed where any deviation equals loss of status and confidence, and it will be very difficult for the ideology behind a decision to be as different as the original, and with some investigation, the intellectual party or even the cuplrit is identified with proceeding with a decision, but those who have already paid for it have lost the elections. Lost the election, or lost his position, or is doing everything to divert attention to a sex scandal, or UFOs, and is doing it successfully.
In this case, Nick Cohen would be the man on the ground who experienced the cultural and ideological change on the left, and came to tell the story. He met, criticized and wrote during his life about the people around this change. Without any shadow of a doubt, there are always uncontrollable variables, and events that shape the political landscape, but all the issues he touches on have consequences that are still in sight today, whose characters are still heard about today, good or bad things. The most striking was perhaps the story about a left that led its life to hate fascist regimes, to the point of supporting any intervention to break them, only to later, in February 2003, Cohen becomes disappointed with the marches organized by those against the war in Iraq.
To say that the Iraq Invasion was controversial would be underestimating it, and when we question its legality, sirens go off. It is not to say that the concerns were not legitimate, and certainly the millions of people who took to the streets to protest the war drank from sources that made a good case, especially when the “oil invasion” narrative took on gas. Taxpayers were exhausted from having to endure decades of military intervention resulting in crises abroad and at home. But Cohen describes Saddam Hussein’s regime as fascist in every way, or at least, as the left of the time described fascism. Saddam was known to the children as Baba Saddam Hussein – Father – and the next generation would come to recognize their country’s leader as a father figure. The Baathists used a secret police inspired by Stasi, a former German secret police during the Cold War, in which even the hairdressers worked as informants, reporting everything women told each other while drying their hair, convinced that they were not heard. Sooner or later the husbands would disappear, or the whole family would be punished. This took root in the regime in such a way that it made a coup d’état, or a root support revolution, impossible, and the only solution, according to Iraqi intellectuals who survived or escaped the clutches of the Baathists, would be an invasion by another power.
Like a Borat film, Saddam Hussein himself approved of the anti-war marches and the regime took advantage of the images to strengthen its cause, creating propaganda in favor of the Baathists with indirect support from the West. Years earlier they had opposed the use of force to expel Saddam’s forces outside Kuwait, and ignored the threats made to the Kurds in the north – who ended up displaced and still suffer today throughout the Middle East, namely by the Baathist regime from Bashar Al -Assad, in Syria. Regardless of the solidity of the reasons that inspired the protests across Europe and the USA, it is a fact that all the participants, namely the left, were trying to prevent the fall of a dictatorial regime.
But they had a good point: both the US and the Soviet Union armed and sculpted Iraq during the Cold War, making it a stabilizing weapon for the region whose main target was Iran. The prodigal child of the great powers was eventually abandoned by them, and in response, he revolted against his tutors. Suspicion fell on his support for al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks, and on the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, such weapons that were later proven not to exist, but something that seemed to elude many of the war’s supporters is that such weapons, if found, were there because the great powers put them there, and when the invasion took place, they would have been sold or dismantled in the decades before. The subsequent benefits of controlling crude exports quickly surfaced, and the left argued that the invasion of Iraq was an imperialist and corporate coup, and memes about America and Oil are still part of the culture today, no matter which way look at.
After the First World War, British Liberals and Conservatives gave the working class (men) who came from the trenches, the right to vote; FDR guaranteed work and good education to soldiers returning from World War II (Serviceman’s Readjustment Act); On the other hand, however, the neoconservative Republicans of the 90s wanted to cut the feeding off the “beast”, while filling the pockets of the rich (and the beast – the government – has been growing ever since), and the post 9/11 Republican priority was to cut taxes on the rich and fill pockets of Generals and decision-makers who were not in combat.
It is also worth noting that in 2003 the majority of Americans and British supported the war, and years later, the global majority would come to disapprove of the way the United States handled the invasion.
Once again, I say the left had good arguments to oppose the war. However, the intellectual left until the 1990s supported Stalinism-Leninism, and this remains a stain to this day, especially in the United Kingdom. Today it is willing to forgive or forget its past of support for Stalinism-Leninism, but it has no intention of doing the same to its own more nationalistic past, and they open wounds from colonial times in order to “deconstruct” the right-wing thinking , whose most “hard” thinking is considered “fascist”. The left has the superpower of Repressive Tolerance, where they are immune from critics, for their support – direct or indirect -, of their own totalitarian vein, but any point of order coming from the right must be put down immediately. As in 2003, the left would indirectly support Saddam’s regime, knowing perfectly well how effective its iron pulse was, how impossible it was for the people to revolt, and how much minorities like the Kurds were being slaughtered.
Nick Cohen identifies four culprits for this confusion on the left:
1 – Socialism for consumers: today it is impossible for someone on the left not to have to find solutions to problems on the market. I usually say that capitalism is so good and so effective, that it managed to acquire socialism and Marxism from the left-wing supporters, and sell it back to them, and yet they still consider themselves against the big machine even when they benefit from all the cogs in this same machine. The difference is that thanks to some miracle, and due to the great incompetence of the right and the center politics, they seem to be gaining ground. They have European Union institutions and demand more regulation, the UN to boost its crazy social agenda, and the greatest world power to be responsible for astronomical levels of surveillance and invasion of privacy, and yet, they ask for more, as part of the revolution. Among the greatest proponents of this revolution are millionaires, entrepreneurs and youtubers, who show at all times how well they live, and share their cars and hookups, something that goes against the values of many in the working class they defend, as well as proving how much some are more equal than others.
2 – Multiculturalism showing some flaws: there is no doubt that the left struggles for sexual liberalization, and gender and ethnic equality have produced enormous results, and today we can see this when we hit the streets and go to workplaces. However, postmodern liberals have developed identity policies that are anti-individualistic in their assumptions. They treat women, gays and other ethnicities as their segregated community, a block of completely common and unique interests. Women’s freedom and the fight against domestic violence involves all women, not just the left-wing woman, or the white-collar woman. Sexual orientation turned into a sort of political work. They consider it repressive when talking about “others”, yet they do not seem to understand that other people, no matter their history and origins, are as capable of creating fascist movements, oppressing women and denying democracy, as any other. They criticize Christianity at all times, but do not waste time defending Islam, and here I do not even speak of the left itself, I speak as an atheist, who does not understand the logic behind this. Religious freedom is a liberal imperative, but when terrorist attacks outside and within the Western world originate in local Mosques, speaking of intervention is tantamount to blasphemy, and investigations that would give rise to radicalization cannot even make news, because it risks any policies to combat it to start being seen by certain influential groups as a xenophobic act. At the same time, as they constantly struggle to strip their own women – and men – of all prejudices and taboos, they very candidly respect Islamic conservatism. In October last year, after the beheading of a professor in France, an opinion article appeared in the New York Times blaming the victimized country for the terrorist attack, and it is not the first time that this has happened. They are reminiscent of fools who blame a raped victim for walking in a skirt. France apparently “was asking for it.”
They ask for enormous qualifications to understand the philosophy behind what they say, but like Cohen, I believe that even children understand the hypocrisy in their policies, policies that they try to hide behind esotericism and convulsive prose.
3 – Liberal Illusion: the left got an aversion to the working class, either because it likes to party and becomes too drunk to care about intellectual matters, or because even though sober they do not have enough intelligence to understand such intellectual matters (as Virginia Woolf saw them). The left managed to accuse the working class of being authoritarian or racist in everything it says, and even with some success they turned members of the middle class into the equivalent of Mukhabarat Ba’athists, censoring their neighbors in order to gain status. In essence, cancellation is a game of power, not justice. Only those at the bottom of the social ladder are virtually immune to cancellation, because they have nothing that the above classes covet. Igualitarian measures have the curious habit of favoring the comfortable.
Nick Cohen cites Chritopher Hitchens on this: ‘to be blacklisted is to be denied employment for political reasons unconnected with job-performance’.
4 – Fear: “A frantic desire to appease would be the natural response in normal circumstances, but it became ubiquitous when citizens saw that America and Britain had launched the second Iraq war on the worst intelligence since the US military dismissed the possibility of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. ‘Surely, this was “our” fault,’ they said. ‘Surely, we were the “root cause”, and, surely, if we admitted our responsibility and changed our ways the psychopath would move on and pick on someone else and we would be safe.’
Fear is the most powerful of human motives, and a willingness to rationalize the irrational is a fatal liberal weakness. Add in the despairing and reactionary turn modern leftish thinking took after the collapse of socialism, the tolerance of the intolerable inculcated by post-modernism and the doubts about democracy in the liberal mainstream, and I hope you can see why so many could not oppose totalitarian movements of the far right or even call them by their real names.
However understandable the denial, it remains as pitiful a response to Islamism as climate change denial is to global warming. Both sets of deniers believe that we can carry on as before living our safe, consumerist lives as if nothing has changed. Neither understands that we have no choice other than to face the threats of our time. Reasonable men and women can disagree about how we face them, but we will not be able to see the world clearly until we have swept away the vast mounds of junk that block our view.” – Nick Cohen
What’s Left? it is quite dense and I suggest that you are prepared to take notes – and compare with what you know about history – written by a leftist man very disappointed with his own group. It was an interesting trip where his provocation was clear, and he leaves some hope that the left will find reason and moderate. He recognizes that it is so difficult to define what the left is today, due to its postmodernist relativism, that anyone can take a left position to earn points. I do not believe that the left and right can cease to exist, arguing even in our natural state, we would either support the status quo or revolt, there will always be an “and-or” when facing threats. Unfortunately, the left has lost iself, and it seems that the events of 2003 and 2008 boosted its dementia. As someone has said to me several times: “Revolutions eat their own children, like Titans eat Gods,” and today we are seeing this across the spectrum.
Image: JK the Unwise, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons