The Fall of the Great Left (or, Farewell, Foucault!)

Michel Foucault

When I first arrived on a college campus in 1988, I felt I was entering a new world. Coming from Buffalo where I’d attended a public high school, the whirling elites of the Ivy League felt foreign to me. One of the first things I had to understand was the way of the Left.

The “Left” encompassed a host of bickering ideologies, including liberalism, libertarianism, socialism, general radicalism, and the finer identity politics drawn from a blend of Darwinism, Marxism, and Freudianism.

While it was still not entirely in control of the social realm, the Left was rising in 1988. It had become the standard superego of educated minds–the default, the sine qua non. Everything outside the Left had to ask permission to exist.

The Left was a way of life that encapsulated an entire person’s being. It meant you trusted the right experts–those with secular and contemporary credentials. It also meant you rejected the wrong experts, those whose authority came from tradition or religion.

To be part of the Left meant you learned how to protect “protected” groups without being prompted. The minute you heard someone drifting into statements that might become critical of women, minorities, or homosexuals (later also Muslims and trans people), you immediately thwarted any possibility of the person continuing on their train of thought. In every class, we learned this mental faculty of automated deflection. It required a studied dualism, because you had to show heightened scrutiny, even hostility, to some statements coming from heartfelt experience; while you had to suppress any scrutiny or doubts before other statements.

In totality, the Left became a system of understanding human experience according to contradictory and nonsensical rules, which you not only had to follow. You also had to believe that they were not contradictory or nonsensical. You had to believe that it was absolutely normal, for instance, to believe any claim by a woman about sexual abuse at the hands of a man, but you had to disbelieve any claim by a man about sexual abuse at the hands of an openly gay man. No rational grounds existed to apply these dualistic, and totally unfair, epistemological standards.

But the longer you marinated in the Left’s institutionalized belief system, the more natural these inconsistencies and irrational rules came to feel. You had to applaud any anti-white statement by a black person, no matter how vicious, violent, or unjustified. You had to denounce any statement by a white person against a black person, no matter how sensible, polite, or careful. That is, unless the black person was conservative, in which case you were obligated to rejoice in hateful statements no matter how racist or generally cruel.

Michel Foucault once said that contradictions make an ideology powerful. The idea that powerful people need to be rational and consistent has never held true. Most people who wield power (and power was Foucault’s favorite topic) have actually amplified their power to the extent that they state and internalize mutually contradictory beliefs. If I say, for instance, that Bill Clinton could never have sexually harassed Paula Jones because Republicans are siding with Paula Jones; then I say that Clarence Thomas must have sexually harassed Anita Hill, because Democrats are siding with Anita Hill–according to Foucault, I enhance my power.

Perhaps Foucault’s reading holds true because those groups who can get away with contradictory (or false) public statements are usually the ones that intimidate dissenters into silence. It is all about graphic projections of power. If you have enough connections, money, guns, and gumption to go out there and say contradictory things, threatening anyone who might object, then people see you and fear you. Their fear enhances your power.

This is how the Left increased in power from 1988 to 2020. In academia, they terrified anyone on the tenure track until nobody stood up to their fake research. They could publish one study emphasizing the power dynamics that make it wrong for a man to date a woman younger than he, who works for him; then they could publish another study justifying or even celebrating sexual congress between middle-aged gay men and veritable boys 30 years younger. Anyone who said, “wait, the underlying presumptions here completely undo one another,” would be drowned out, given the silent treatment, assigned classes to teach at seven o’clock in the morning, and then driven out of the department if they insisted in breaking their unscholarly taboos.

In twenty years of academia, I saw the Left consolidate more power, stew in more money, and enthrall more students, with each year. And I knew that something in America was going to go very wrong. Because Michel Foucault’s brilliance was evil. There is a reason that we call someone an evil genius rather than an evil idiot. Foucault was right about how ideas gain power over people and regulate human bodies and life power.

But Foucault was very wrong about what the point of having ideas is. And he was fairly wrong about the long-term fate of powerful ideas too. The world of contradiction and language power that fascinated him so tirelessly in the 1960s and 1970s eventually became the hegemonic world system for at least forty years. When Ronald Reagan became president of the United States in 1981, he came with a “three-legged stool” of conservatism: defense, free markets, and Christian morality. The free-market part of Reagan’s brew corresponded with libertarianism, by far the strongest driving force in what has passed as the “Right” since 1980. Strong national borders and Biblical sexual mores were both jettisoned by Conservative, Inc., to make room for pro-choice, pro-marijuana, Open Borders libertarians.

And libertarians belong, really, on the Left with the quarreling camps that all want to force reality to fit the conclusions drawn from language games. By the Clinton era, with its mass incarcerations of black people and NAFTA, the Left, like the Right, was really a libertarian enterprise. The antiwar movements sprang up and got co-opted, learning to stay quiet when it was Clinton who bombed the Sudan or Obama who sent drones to Yemen. The working class, treated like the Democrats’ red-headed stepchild, drifted to the Republicans, who were representing them much more effectively by the 2010s. And if the Democrats were truly so attentive to the concerns of the black community, it would not have been during Obama’s presidency that we saw Baltimore and Ferguson consumed in riots. Black Lives Matter was born to protest Obama-era policies. It was not born from Trump’s America.

The Left and the Right became libertarian parodies of their former projects. And libertarianism is, ultimately, the fruit of Foucault’s intentional contradictions. Libertarianism says liberty is the most important good of all, and also that economic liberty means private companies can threaten employees with firing and suspended health insurance, or forced signings of Non-Disclosure Agreements, if said employees digress from their boss’s agendas. Like the Left saying antiwhite racism is good but anti-black racism is bad, the libertarians define freedom as the ultimate goal of human experience, and yet define the purpose of freedom as a lot of contradictory nonsense. But the libertarians of the Left and Right both want gay marriage, pornography, legalized drugs, and legal abortion. All these aims require contradictory or illogical claims about the ultimate purpose of the good life, morality, or dignity.

Hence the Left and Right both became libertarian games by the 1980s. But they were not mirror images of each other. The Left’s libertarianism went on to become the standard for the entire globe, while the Right’s libertarianism shrank and shrank until it became an impotent fringe dwelling in dark corners of the internet or in Charlie Kirk’s brain.

The Left had real institutional power, in education and law and the media. They nurtured and rewarded the people of their set who spoke in libertarian contradictions. They circulated marching orders and little rewards to the people like them: the elite college graduates living in fashionable districts, those who had internalized those automatic conversational redirections until they were as involuntary as breathing or sleeping. By the 2010s, they had a machine that would have been the envy of Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Xerxes, or Ramses II. The schools indoctrinated people, the media created a false reality, the government sent tax money to hold up the Left’s sacred cows, and the courts kept overriding any attempts to correct course.

By January 2020, the Left could make any falsehood real; they could terrorize the world into silence even in the face of the most preposterous claims. That’s the only way you could have 215-pound hairy men in dresses, convicted of raping girls, demanding to be housed in the women’s prison to shower with female inmates. Were it not for the awesome discursive power of the Left, such irrational situations would have never progressed this far.

But then came 2020. And there were riots. The Left claimed for four months, with the straightest of faces, that no riots were happening, even as we watched a steady stream of rioters setting fire to churches, tearing down statues, smashing windows, beating people up, and shooting fireworks at policemen. For the first time in 50 years of life, I find that the Left can’t pull off their power anymore. People just can’t be made to care so much about racist microaggressions that they will agree to be re-educated in one of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility struggle sessions and calmly nod along while their family business is burned to the ground by lunatics chanting “Black Lives Matter.” The headlines from Washington Post and New York Times sound absurd. They are absurd. People know they are absurd. The more the leftist elite tries to spin the horrors of 2020 and blame the riots on Trump, the more I see the mysterious power of the Left–its Foucauldian craftsmanship–crumbling.

I sense that the faculty will never go back to the way they were a year ago. Whether it’s the biologists who said transwomen were women, the pedagogues who encouraged drag queens to read disturbing stories to five-year-olds in public libraries, or the sociologists who claim that black people can’t be racist to white people even as criminals screaming “f*** white people” curb-stomp a white man, their theories are no longer compelling. They’ve succeeded at Foucault’s game and lost at life.

I never thought I’d see the day. But I do think the Left’s golden age is coming to a close. Farewell, Foucault.