“Edmund Burke’s arguments against the French Revolutionaries resonate because he understood the revolutionaries’ position quite well.”
Nate Hochman recently produced an interesting op-ed for the conservative National Review entitled “The Intellectual Dark Web’s Quiet Revolution.” Hochman makes the interesting argument that conservatives may be overestimating the extent to which college campuses are engendering a new generation of young leftists. He points out that many students tire of the, “intersectional narrative that is the foundation of the progressive belief system” and have a “knee jerk” reaction that there must be something wrong with it. This leads them to eventually embrace new forms of conservatism—in this case, the Intellectual Dark Web. Although the members of the Dark Web may not be uniformly conservative, Hochman argues that their criticisms of the contemporary intersectional Left resonate with many students and leads them towards conservative politics.
“…This new class of intellectuals serves for many as the new gatekeeper to the Right. Through them, many college students—myself included—have found their way to Edmund Burke. And to the convert whose access to the conservative tradition came through this cohort of thinkers, it is no coincidence that, despite the variety of political beliefs espoused by individual members of the IDW, they often lead many of their followers to a more traditionalist conservatism,” he writes.
Interestingly, Hochman goes beyond these anecdotal but interesting social observations and connects it to the broader history of conservatism. He maintains that the, “path to conservatism” for many begins with a feeling that whatever leftists are proposing at the time, “must be wrong.” Oftentimes, conservatives are unwilling to express why in an intellectually cogent manner. Hochman goes a step further. He argues that it is precisely this gut level reaction against the Left is, “in itself, an ideology.” He then approvingly cites Michael Oakeshott’s characterization of conservatism as less a rational philosophy and more of a “disposition,” an opinion shared at points by luminaries like Russell Kirk (a fact which Frank Meyer criticized him for). Thinkers like the members of the Intellectual Dark Web then provide a more systematic justification for this “knee jerk” disposition against Leftist projects. In effect, the Left creates its own opposition through “unwittingly” creating new generations of conservatives who feel it is going too far. Some of these conservatives may even consist of former Leftists dissatisfied with their former allies.
“The IDW and their followers are composed of many on the Left who find themselves identifying more with conservatives than with their previous political allies, who seem suddenly taken with moral relativism, postmodernism, and the elevation of gender and racial identity over honest intellectual combat and the pursuit of truth.”
There is a lot to chew on in Hochman’s piece, which warrants a careful rebuttal. I will start by indicating where I agree with his argument, before specifying where I think it misses the mark. This is particularly true in his appraisal of the contemporary left.
Campus Activism, the Left and Political Aesthetics
Having taught at universities for many years, first as a teaching assistant and now as a professor, I would agree that there is something to Hochman’s account of why students become attracted to conservatism in general and the Intellectual Dark Web in particular. Many students came to me over the years to opine that they felt their curriculum was too slanted to support left-wing viewpoints—or that there was insufficient attention paid to the conservative tradition, or that they simply disliked the tone and character of campus activism. This led them to feel alienated from their peers and faculty. Now, to some extent I think Hochman overstates the extent to which these inclinations are purely driven by the overemphasis and style of left-wing agitation on campus. Many of the students who came to me expressing their discontent were clearly already of a conservative bent, and their experience at university merely served to confirm their gestating viewpoints. But there is no doubt that this move to the right was accelerated by these experiences, and there were indeed some centrist and even left-wing students of mine who shifted right for similar reasons.
Where the Left can learn from Hochman’s critique is on the aesthetic dimension of political agitation. The excellent progressive Youtuber Contrapoints has long claimed that even where left-wing causes and arguments are valid, leftists often turn people away due to the style and tone of their activism. Many people come to regard leftists as moralistic, puritanical, and censorious, which drives them away from that side of the political spectrum. This also explains why a large majority of people claim to despise “political correctness.” What political correctness actually means to people is quite vague, but it strikes me that the distaste for it reflects the “feeling” that the Left has gone too far, which Hochman talked about. Now to some extent, I would argue these “feelings” are in no small part manufactured by right-wing media, which often focus with tiresome myopia on campus politics and activism. This is why the National Review’s own David French was compelled to argue that there is a, “fake outrage machine on the right also.” But regardless, it is clear that the Left has an “image” problem it needs to work on. This is part of why I have started calling on my fellow leftists to adopt a different style of political activism in my articles via a shift towards the “engaged left.” Fortunately other figures and outlets, from Contrapoints to the publisher Zero Books and the eminently readable magazine Current Affairs, seem to understand the need for this shift. It is one way to try and win back what Hochman calls “converts” to the Right by illustrating their concerns will be given a hearing by Leftists.
Where I think Hochman goes wrong is on two points. The first is his characterization of the Left and the second is on the substance of his political disagreements.
It is that these figures are so far not really up to the task, and the result is a sense that they are either engaged in bad faith polemics at best or simply unaware of the complexities of progressive positions at worst.
The Contemporary Left and Its Discontents
Hochman frequently compares the critical observations of Edmund Burke to the more recent critiques of the Intellectual Dark Web, arguing that that they stem from the same reactionary disposition towards the Left. I think this is quite true, but it misses a key distinction. Edmund Burke’s arguments against the French Revolutionaries resonate because he understood the revolutionaries’ position quite well. Reflections on the Revolution in France and Burkes’s speeches are peppered with knowing references to the writings of the revolutionaries and their antecedents. The same high quality of criticisms is largely absent in the work’s of the Intellectual Dark Web. They may be driven by a shared disdain for contemporary left-wing agitation, but they rarely demonstrate an understanding of it which goes far beyond surface level distaste for the style and tone of social justice activism and identity politics.
These limitations have been observed by both me and numerous critics like Ben Burgis and Nathan J. Robinson at length, and I cannot summarize all the observations to that effect here. To give a few examples of the more intellectually auspicious members of the Dark Web: in his book (my review here) on post-modernism and socialism Stephen Hicks makes many interpretive and even factual errors about seminal figures; Ben Shapiro badly and frequently misreads seminal modern thinkers associated with Left (and even the political right ala Max Weber) in The Right Side of History, and despite his venom Jordan Peterson doesn’t appear to have actually read more than a few pages of Marx in years. These and other very basic errors convince many Leftists (and even some conservatives on some points) that, sadly, the Dark Web’s critique of the Left doesn’t go much beyond a “knee jerk” belief that they must be wrong accompanied by a few nice sounding but inaccurate rationalizations. It isn’t that the positions of post-modern theorists, or the Frankfurt School, or Marx cannot be robustly criticized from a conservative perspective. It is that these figures are so far not really up to the task, and the result is a sense that they are either engaged in bad faith polemics at best or simply unaware of the complexities of progressive positions at worst.
This brings me to the deeper point of contention. Hochman may be correct that conservatism begins as an instinctive reaction against the extremism of various left-wing positions. This is fair enough as it is. Most of us begin to adopt our political viewpoints for intuitive and emotional reasons and afterwards seek out justifications for our positions. But the problem with the reactionary impulse is it all too often disinclines people from trying to learn why many progressives hold the positions they do. This is a serious problem since it means conservatives often do not really engage with the arguments for social change—so much as try and engage in ex post-facto justifications for the status quo while dismissing criticisms. Burke was certainly not guilty of this, but many of his contemporary progeny are. When confronted with evidence that man made climate change is a serious threat to the population, conservatives to this day can either dismiss the charge or fatalistically claim that there is nothing we can really do about it now. Each time progressives point out that the myth of American meritocracy has significant empirical holes in it since a few are born with immense advantages denied to the rest of the population, someone is on hand with the bulletproof argument that life is just unfair, and we have to deal with it without substantially changing the systematic roots of unfairness. These aren’t really sustained engagements with left-wing arguments so much as deflections and naturalizations. And, of course, things have gotten even worse in the Trump era with the promulgation of false stories and hyperbolic rhetoric about the Left and its positions. Conservatism would not provoke many of the frustrated reactions it does if conservative pundits were more willing to take left-wing criticisms seriously and try to argue against them in a knowing and careful way. Just invoking “logic” and “facts” as the Dark Web enjoys doing is not proof that one’s argument is either logical or factually grounded.
My criticisms are, of course, not directed against Hochman himself, who has written a balanced and knowledgeable piece. There are a few quibbles I have with his interpretation of left wing theory; I don’t know any major theorist who reduces history down to a pseudo-Hegelian narrative of oppressor and oppressed, and most post-modern theorists dislike Hegel and his grand narratives to boot, but these are quibbles. My main contention is that we should seriously reconsider whether the Intellectual Dark Web as it operates now really constitutes a “revolutionary” turn of some sort. I would go further than Hochman’s contention that the Dark Web is “far from perfect” and contend that its efforts have actually been intellectually underwhelming so far. At least when directed against the positions of the Left. Some of the figures like Jordan Peterson are actually very knowing when commenting on subjects they are more familiar with, but left-wing theory and activism aren’t amongst those subjects.
This isn’t to say one cannot criticize the Left. As a proud leftist myself, I think there are many things we can work on related to political aesthetics and even substantive positions. I would argue that a reorientation towards inequality and the critique of capitalism is needed in today’s climate, which fortunately seems underway with the surge in support for socialist and social democratic parties. But I do not think many of these changes beyond the aesthetic will be prompted by the agitation of the Intellectual Dark Web. Unless they develop more interesting and erudite interpretations and criticisms of left-wing positions, their only significance for the Left is largely tactical rather than intellectual. Their bad arguments need to be exposed and their influence countered where possible. It is a shame since a more substantive dialogue between Left and Right would be enabled through good faith engagements which cannot happen when one is presenting caricatures.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.