My conversion story: coming to the radical left

The most important “conversion” in my life was not religious but political. This is the story of how I came to be a radical leftist, committed to the goal of ending injustice and tearing down oppressive power-structures, and why I am convinced that radical leftism is the only hope for the future of humanity.

I’m an unlikely leftist. Just four years ago I identified as a libertarian conservative, and publicly supported the Conservative Party. Those so inclined can probably find my name in an old edition of a student newspaper, in connection with an election scandal in the Oxford University Conservative Association. I even once attended an event at the Heritage Foundation. I would never have predicted that, a few years down the line, I would be a committed socialist and a campaigner against immigration controls. So how did my outlook change so radically?

My Friedman-reading libertarian years were not wholly wasted. Granted, I now think that libertarian economics is hopelessly naïve at best, naked class warfare at worst, and that libertarianism as an ideology primarily serves the class interests of the wealthy. But it was libertarianism, despite being a flawed paradigm, which first made me interested in immigrants’ rights, combating police brutality and abuse of power, ending the War on Drugs, and other issues which I would now regard as fundamental social justice issues. In particular, I came to realize that the system of immigration control is indefensible and barely comprehensible: why should we discriminate against people, much less detain them in degrading conditions and subject them to violence, merely because of where they were born? This is a conviction which I carry to the present day, and which underlies my unequivocal support for immigrants’ rights.

My drift away from libertarianism towards the radical left was a gradual process. I slowly came to realize that the violent state oppressions I opposed were intricately interlinked with capitalism, that capitalism itself was created and sustained by state violence, and that the libertarian mythos, appealing as it was, often served as a pretext for policies which further marginalized the poor. I have to give much of the credit to Jadehawk, and to another internet friend who goes by the name strange gods before me, for my deconversion from libertarianism. Many of the other commenters at Pharyngula, and a number of other people, online and offline, also played a role in my changing outlook. This shift also occurred against a backdrop of political change in Britain: the Conservatives came to power in May 2010, and implemented harsh, ideologically-driven austerity policies which have served to make life harder for the poorest and most marginalized people. I slowly realized that despite the promises of its proponents, a capitalist philosophy can never be a philosophy of liberation. It only leads to the concentration of more wealth and power in the hands of the most privileged. And it also does not account for the impending environmental crisis: a capitalist, growth-focused model of economics can never respond effectively to the devastating threat of climate change.

Libertarians are wrong about economics, but they are, I think, right to be suspicious of a strong centralized state, and to point out that our governments are guilty of repression and racist violence on a grand scale, at home and abroad. That is why my political inclination is now towards the anarcho-socialist tradition: a decentralized economy, in which the means of production are controlled by democratic worker collectives. And radical leftism must also be intersectional. Class is not the only axis of oppression; we should also understand the realities of institutionalized racism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia and ableism, and how these inequalities intersect with one another. And we should be dedicated to ending all of the oppressive power-structures that exist in society, not just classism.

It is also important that the voices of the privileged – white Western middle-class cisgender men, like me – should not be the dominant force in the debate. I am not qualified to speak firsthand about the experience of oppression, marginalization or poverty, and I possess no special wisdom on those subjects. Although I am bisexual, an atheist, and a sufferer from mental illness, I do not speak for all of the people who fall into these groups.  And although I have chosen, as a lawyer and activist, to work with asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants, I certainly have no right to speak for them in the political arena, and my voice should not drown theirs out. That is why I seek to promote the work of grassroots activist organizations such as the Movement for Justice, organized by and for immigrants campaigning for immigrants’ rights and racial justice.  For me, standing in solidarity is not just about knowing when to talk, but about knowing when to listen.

My younger self was, at times, very wrong and very foolish. And of course I am still quite capable of being wrong and foolish. Learning and changing are integral parts of the human condition, and I claim no special wisdom. But I want to take this opportunity to thank those who helped me to recognize the ways in which my own privilege previously blinded me to the oppression of others.

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14 Responses to My conversion story: coming to the radical left

  1. johnvmarsch says:

    Here’s something else you still have in common with your former co-religionists … : )

    (You have to admit the pushback is quite amusing .)

  2. (You have to admit the pushback is quite amusing .)

    You’re linking to someone who has written for VDARE, a white supremacist hate site? Really?

  3. johnvmarsch says:

    Well it was hardly meant as a blanket endorsement. And I’ve linked to far worse in the course of our interactions.

    Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  4. johnvmarsch says:

    OK, that was more flippant than you deserve. I’ll give you a serious answer since you clearly think that “linking to someone who has written for VDARE” is a serious matter.

    a] The relevant part of my comment — You have to admit the pushback is quite amusing — was basically a piece of off-colour humour. If it offended you, I apologise. (The serious part of my comment preceded that: Here’s something else you still have in common with your former co-religionists. I say serious because if it is the case that libertarians are generally pro-immigration, then that might give grounds for challenging an assertion I believe you made in your FtBConscience session that immigration restrictions benefit capitalist interests.)

    b] You describe VDARE as “a white supremacist hate site”. For me that conjures up images of Klan hoods, swastikas and shaven heads, the whole WN/Stormfront thing basically. Would I link to such a site? Absolutely, if it served to make a serious point. I’d also have no hesitation in linking to the Stalin Society, RevLeft, the Dr Huey P Newton Foundation, the Brown Berets, ATWA and the JDL if it was relevant to the issue at hand.

    c] Would I link to “a white supremacist hate site” merely as a piece of off-colour humour? Probably not. Whether it is fair to call VDARE “a white supremacist hate site” is a moot point. I don’t get that impression, but then I haven’t explored that site in any depth. Have you? (Yes, yes, I know the SPLC class it as a hate site, along with Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Pii X, but I like to make my own judgments on such matters.)

    d] However VDARE is best characterised, I didn’t link to that site of course but to “someone who has written” for it. What can I say?

    You can’t always judge a book by its cover. An English socialist once described HG Wells’ political convictions thusly: “… his eager conviction that the ideal of Socialism, which included world government, the abolition of all authority not based on reason, and of all inequality based on prejudice or privilege of any kind, of complete freedom of association, speech and movement, and of an immense increase of human welfare and material resources achieved by all-wise non-profit-making organisation of economic life, both could and would save humanity within a measurable space of time.” Sounds as progressive as it gets, huh?

    “And how will the new republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? how will it deal with the yellow man? how will it tackle that alleged termite in the civilized woodwork, the Jew? Certainly not as races at all. It will aim to establish, and it will at last, though probably only after a second century has passed, establish a world state with a common language and a common rule. All over the world its roads, its standards, its laws, and its apparatus of control will run. It will, I have said, make the multiplication of those who fall behind a certain standard of social efficiency unpleasant and difficult… The Jew will probably lose much of his particularism, intermarry with Gentiles, and cease to be a physically distinct element in human affairs in a century or so. … And for the rest, those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go.The whole tenor and meaning of the world, as I see it, is that they have to go. So far as they fail to develop sane, vigorous, and distinctive personalities for the great world of the future, it is their portion to die out and disappear.”
    – HG Wells

    • I say serious because if it is the case that libertarians are generally pro-immigration, then that might give grounds for challenging an assertion I believe you made in your FtBConscience session that immigration restrictions benefit capitalist interests.

      It is true that many libertarians are pro-immigration, and indeed I first became aware of immigrants’ rights issues when I was a libertarian. And from a libertarian perspective it’s quite coherent; they believe in free markets, and simply apply the same free-market thinking to the movement of labour that they apply to the movement of goods. (Something which mainstream conservatives conspicuously fail to do.) Regardless, leftist pro-immigration activism and libertarian pro-immigration activism are quite different, exist for different reasons, and emphasize different things.

      The relationship between immigration restrictions and capitalism is complex. I imagine the observation I made during the FtBConscience session was that there is a fundamental inequality in modern international capitalism, in that business can move goods and capital around the globe freely, but workers are not similarly free to move. Whether immigration restrictions benefit capitalist interests, as such, probably depends on which capitalist interests. Some unscrupulous employers certainly take advantage of workers’ undocumented status to exploit them.

      As for VDARE, it was not clear to me what kind of point you were making, or why you were linking apparently approvingly to a blog written by a racist.

  5. Reblogged this on The emperor's new frock and commented:
    I found these story very compelling and unusual. You never hear political conversion stories. I would love to invite commenters to tell us your political conversion story. What experiences, observations or writings turned you into a lefty?

  6. jonolan says:

    You say,

    It is also important that the voices of the privileged – white Western middle-class cisgender men, like me – should not be the dominant force in the debate.

    Leaving your bias language aside, why shouldn’t their voice be the dominant one? They are the norm and the group with the most to lose and who will be expected to bear the bulk of any initiative that is designed to solely or mostly benefit anyone else. Effectively, they are the vast majority and you say they shouldn’t have the largest voice in these matters?

    That’s not Liberalism; that’s oikophobia.

    • White men are not the “vast majority,” sweetie.

      • jonolan says:

        Like it or not, in terms of who’s going to pay for things that don’t benefit us in any way, we are the vast majority. White women would be second largest plurality. Hence, those two groups shouls have the two largest and most dominant voices in discussion of that sort.

    • David Neale says:

      Leaving your bias language aside,

      What biased language? Observing that white middle-class cis men are privileged is not a symptom of bias, it’s a sociological observation backed up by the relevant evidence. Male privilege, white privilege, cis privilege and class privilege exist. This is a fact. What we should do about privilege is a moral question, but to say that it exists is objectively true.

      They are the norm

      In what sense? This just looks like naked bigotry to me.

      and the group with the most to lose and who will be expected to bear the bulk of any initiative that is designed to solely or mostly benefit anyone else.

      Well, yes, but you could say that about those who benefit from any system of oppression: those who benefit unfairly from the system will by definition be those with the most to lose. The feudal aristocracy had the most to lose from the dismantling of feudalism. Whites had the most to lose from the dismantling of apartheid. That doesn’t mean that oppressed people should have to ask the permission of their oppressors before fighting oppression. People who benefit unfairly from the oppression of others should have that benefit taken away.

      Effectively, they are the vast majority

      What do you mean by this? If you mean “majority” in a strictly demographic sense, this is clearly not the case: white, middle-class, cis men are not the numerical majority in any society. It might be true that they are the “majority” in a wider sociological sense, being the dominant and privileged group – but how on earth would that be an argument for giving them the dominant voice in the debate?

      In any case, it’s beside the point – do you really argue that majorities should have carte blanche to oppress minorities as much as they wish? And that the voices of the privileged should be given precedence over those who actually experience oppression? This is just wrong. I would argue that a society’s morals can be judged by how it treats the most marginalized people.

      That’s not Liberalism

      Indeed it isn’t. I’m a radical leftist, not a liberal.

      that’s oikophobia.

      I see someone’s been reading Roger Scruton. And no, it isn’t. Seeking justice and equal rights for others does not amount to hating one’s own group.

  7. How adorable. But no, you don’t get to pretend that by “men,” you really meant “men and women.”

    So, no, white men are not the vast majority. White men are about 50% of white people. So, if white people constitute 60% of the population, then that means white men should have about 30% control of things. Heads of government, CEOs, brilliant professors, conductors, celebrated authors – should all be about 30% white men in our hypothetical country where white people compose 60% of the population.

    Yeah. That actually sounds just fine.

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