In 1992, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a celebrated book with the extravagant title The End of History and the Last Man. In it, he argued (I’m quoting from Wikipedia here) that the triumph of Western liberalism marked the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.
The rationale was that the Soviet Union had collapsed under the weight of its own tyranny and sclerotic inefficiency. The decades-long Cold War that defined the post-war era was over and free-market economics (Reaganomics in the US, Thatcherism in Britain, Rogernomics in New Zealand and similar variants elsewhere, including Australia under Bob Hawke) had prevailed throughout the democratic West.
It seemed at the time that the epochal struggle between Marxism and capitalism had been emphatically resolved. There was a mood of smug triumphalism (guilty, your Honour) among advocates of what came to be termed neoliberalism.
Ha! We (and Fukuyama) could hardly have been more wrong. The supposed “end of history” turned out to be merely a brief, anesthetising lull. Far from the ideological contest between left and right being decided once and for all, the contest broke out anew in an insidious and potentially even more lethal form. No one saw this coming; or perhaps I should say no one on the right side of politics.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Western civilisation and Western democratic values are under attack as never before in modern history. The breadth, intensity and viciousness of this attack is breathtaking.
Where it will lead is impossible to say. That will largely depend on whether society recognises what’s at stake and has the will to dig in and resist it.
At the moment, there’s little sign of that happening. Tragically, the only world leader putting up any sort of fight, Donald Trump, is a politician whose values are so bereft of any ethical coherence that if anything, his stand gives the woke left an illusion of moral credibility.
As yet there seems to be no settled term for the amorphous ideology driving this attack on Western capitalist values. It’s variously described as cultural Marxism, neo-Marxism, post-modernism, identity politics or, more colloquially, wokeism. It has its ideological roots in Marxist theories about power structures and the oppression of supposedly disadvantaged minorities – people of colour, women, LGTBQ people, Muslims and immigrants, to name a few – by a privileged white elite. Its adherents see society not as a cohesive body of people with mutual interests but as an agglomeration of marginalised and victimised identity groups struggling to break free of repressive norms.
Having realised decades ago that that the fight between capitalism and classical Marxist economics was lost, the extreme left opened a new front. They attacked liberal democracy’s soft underbelly: its values, conventions, institutions and philosophical foundations.
Suddenly a whole range of bedrock values, from the right to free speech to belief in fixed biological gender, was under savage attack. The underlying purpose is to destabilise society and therefore render it amenable to radical change.
Our supposedly shameful history and heritage also stand condemned. If we can be persuaded to be ashamed of our past, how much easier it becomes to persuade us that the society that grew out of it is deeply contaminated too.
As I wrote in a column in 2018:
[Neo-Marxism] grows out of the assumption that Western civilisation, and all that goes with it, is fundamentally rotten and therefore must be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up.Some woke ideas (most notably the belief that sexual identity is a mere societal construct, “assigned at birth” as if by some conscious and arbitrary human intervention) strike most New Zealanders as demonstrably barking mad, but that hasn't stopped them being embraced by radical zealots and championed by sympathetic polemicists in the news media.
In the cockeyed illogic of the neo-Marxists, we should feel guilt and shame at having inherited a civilisation that has lifted untold millions of people out of poverty and introduced them to democratic government.
You can see Marx’s influence in neo-Marxism’s hostility to capitalism, its contempt for supposed bourgeois values – the family, for instance – and its emphasis on class and division.
But neo-Marxism takes classical Marxist analysis a whole lot further, examining every issue through the lenses not only of class but also of race, gender, sexual identity and any other potential point of difference that can be leveraged into a grievance.
It marches arm-in-arm with identity politics, seeing society not as a cohesive whole, sharing common interests and aspirations, but as a seething mass of oppressed minorities struggling for liberation – hence the ever-increasing number of aggrieved groups clamouring for special recognition. The result is polarisation and fragmentation.
Neo-Marxism also sets out to create a sense of continuing economic and social crisis, using this as justification for ever more intrusive state intervention and control. And it seeks to undermine our most basic understanding of human nature and society. How we see and interpret the world is dismissed by neo-Marxists as a social and political construct, a product of our conditioning.
Nothing is fixed, not even the sex we are born with, and nothing has any objective value. Every belief and every value, no matter how soundly based in human experience and observation, is up for attack.
Paradoxically, while the neo-Marxists assail some belief systems as oppressive – Christianity for example – they make excuses for others, such as Islam, although it’s infinitely more controlling. But don’t go looking for ideological consistency in neo-Marxism; you’d be wasting your time.
The speed with which all this happened caught what might loosely be termed the right off guard. The neo-Marxists have captured most of our key institutions: universities, schools, the media, the health sector, the churches, the public service, the arts and, to some extent, the courts. Even sport has succumbed (hello, Israel Folau).
Resistance to the woke agenda has been strangely subdued, enabling the activists to characterise those who openly oppose them as an extreme right-wing fringe. Note, for example, how the New Zealand media routinely stigmatises groups such as the New Conservatives as “far right” but never attaches equivalent labels to parties on the far left such as the Greens, preferring to treat them as mainstream. In doing so, the media have succeeded in creating the convenient illusion that the political centre has shifted sharply to the left.
Not only that, but by relentlessly focusing on the grievances of small, disaffected and highly vocal minority groups, the media present a warped and distorted image of society. The playwright Arthur Miller famously observed that a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself, a metaphor that can be extended to all the media. But these days it’s a conversation dominated and largely controlled by left-wing political and ideological elites, and one in which the mainstream of the populace plays little part. The image of New Zealand that’s frequently presented in the media – that of a country sharply divided between a privileged white ruling class and a seething mass of the oppressed – is a gross caricature of one of the world’s most tolerant, liberal democracies.
WE HEAR frequent reference to the "culture wars", but this is a misnomer. “War” implies two opposing sides, but in fact the offensive from the left has encountered little resistance – not because of any compelling force in its arguments (there usually isn’t any), but because the people who should be leading the counter-charge are cowering in their foxholes. Politicians who profess to adhere to conservative values have been missing in action, intimidated into silence by the sheer volume of white noise from the activist media. They apparently forget the old management adage that what you accept, you approve.
Corporate institutions have capitulated even more cravenly, scrambling to demonstrate their woke credentials by re-branding products to appease ideologically driven complainants. (A notable example was the renaming of Australia’s Coon cheese brand, a consumer favourite established in 1935 by Edward William Coon.) Fear of boycotts is usually the driver.
A key part of the woke left’s strategy is to deny that any of this is happening, or at least that it’s part of any grand plan. On Wikipedia, the idea of cultural Marxism is dismissed as a “far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theory”. The Wikipedia entry goes on to characterise it as an idea peddled by religious fundamentalists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
This is a variant of the line taken in the 1950s and '60s by New Zealand Marxists who scoffed at claims of communist influence by ridiculing fears of “reds under the bed” (to which Catholic trade unionist Tony Neary, who staunchly resisted communist infiltration of the union movement, riposted that the Reds were sitting up in bed and having breakfast brought in).
As I wrote in that 2018 Dominion Post column:
And how do the neo-Marxists respond when anyone resists their nihilistic theories? Typically, opposition is howled down as hate speech or met with sneering and ridicule. There’s no room in the neo-Marxist world for dissent or freedom of expression.AS I WRITE this, we are in the last days of an election campaign. If the opinion polls are accurate, and I have no reason to doubt them, Jacinda Ardern will be New Zealand’s prime minister for the next three years. The only real uncertainty is whether Labour will govern alone or in coalition with the Greens.
The tragedy is that neo-Marxism is triumphing because the institutions of liberal, democratic government are too weak, too naïve, too complacent or too uncertain of the worth of their own values to put up a fight.
Neo-Marxism has now extended its influence far beyond universities, reaching deep into government, schools, the media, the arts and even the churches. The result is a society that is losing confidence in itself, which is precisely the neo-Marxists’ aim – because a society that has lost confidence in itself is easier to intimidate and control.
Either way, there will be nothing to stand in the way of a re-energised neo-Marxist agenda. New Zealand First has served as a restraint on the government since 2017 but the brakes will be off after Saturday if, as the polls predict, the Peters party fails to win a seat. (Disclosure: I held my nose and voted for Peters in the last election precisely because I reasoned – rightly, as it turned out – that NZ First could curb the ideological excesses of Labour and the Greens, but I can’t bring myself to vote the same way again. No one has done more to bring politics into disrepute in my lifetime than Peters, and even my fear of a left-wing juggernaut in government isn’t enough to justify supporting him a second time. I’ll be voting ACT, though not with whole-hearted enthusiasm.)
What might a Labour or Labour-Green government deliver? We have already had a foretaste in the form of one of the world’s most permissive abortion regimes and the proposal to legalise cannabis. Expect much more under a re-invigorated and unrestrained Ardern government, starting with laws to curb so-called “hate speech”. The putative justification – that the Human Rights Act doesn’t protect people from attacks on the basis of their religion (for which read Islam) – can be easily fixed by a simple amendment adding religion to the existing protections against discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, nationality and ethnicity. But don’t expect the government to stop there. Using the Christchurch mosque massacres as a pretext (a false one, since the absence of restrictive speech laws didn’t cause the shootings and the introduction of tough new ones wouldn’t prevent a similar occurrence), the government is likely to crack down on any speech regarded as offensive by members of supposedly vulnerable minority groups. Egged on by provocateurs in the media, an Ardern government might decide not only to lower the threshold at which speech is considered harmful, but to extend protection to other groups demanding special treatment – for example, trans-gender people.
We hear a lot from such groups about the need to embrace diversity, but the one diversity they don’t tolerate is diversity of opinion. Yet free speech is the currency of liberal democracy. Once we accept curbs on our right to engage in free and robust discussion of contentious issues (but stopping short of advocating active discrimination or incitements to violence, which present law rightly prohibits anyway), we risk becoming what might be called an illiberal democracy: one in which we may still be free to vote for the politicians of our choice, but without our votes being informed by full and open debate. Putin-style democracy, in other words.
But it’s not just transformational legislative change that advocates of liberal democracy should worry about under a new leftist government. Even where it doesn’t take the initiative itself by passing radical or oppressive new laws, a Labour or Labour-Greens government will provide a political environment highly conducive to the advance of the woke agenda. Expect more agitation for separate institutional arrangements for Maori (including non-elected positions on councils), more unilateral adoption of Maori place names (fine, but let’s do it by referendum), more condemnation of supposed white privilege and white supremacy, more hysteria over so-called cultural appropriation, more humiliating, Salem-style public denunciations (accompanied by mandatory attendance at “cultural competency” courses) of people who refuse to toe approved ideological lines, more pressure on companies to pander to exaggerated minority sensitivities (and grovelling apologies when they are perceived to have fallen short), more politicisation of the police, more judicial activism by courts incorporating tikanga (Maori custom) in common law, more virtue-signalling by academics and writers who proclaim themselves as socialists (and therefore unashamedly align themselves with a sorry history of tyranny, repression and economic ruin), more arrogant interference with people's freedoms by activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, more social media bullying of dissenters and more instances of “cancel culture”, where organisations are intimidated into abandoning legitimate speaking engagements for fear of disruption.
All of this is happening already, of course, but it’s likely to acquire far greater momentum with the encouragement, tacit or otherwise, of a government that doesn’t have to worry about humouring a socially conservative coalition partner.
The striking thing about the current election campaign is that barely any of this has been mentioned. It’s only slightly melodramatic to say there’s a battle going on for the heart and soul of the country, but there has been little hint of this other than in New Conservatives campaign billboards calling for free speech. National, the party that supposedly represents mainstream conservative values and therefore should be manning the barricades against the neo-Marxist takeover, is timidly tip-toeing around it and pretending not to see it, possibly because it’s terrified of incurring media antagonism. Covid-19, the government response to it and the likely economic consequences have so dominated people's attention that the woke agenda has been allowed to proceed virtually unchallenged. New Zealand in three years’ time could feel like a very different place, and not in a good way.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.