The Rise of the Authoritarian Left

Mehdi Hasan says the Prophet Mohammed is more important to him than his children. He also uses his own experience of fatherhood as an argument for making other people’s decisions for them. This is why deeply religious people tend to unsettle me no matter how benign they seem. I mean, I’m sure Mehdi Hasan’s a great guy. I just wouldn’t like to be with him in any kind of enclosed space.

Mehdi Hasan stresses that his position on abortion isn’t anything to do with his Islamic faith. Rather it’s an attempt to reclaim the ‘pro life’ cause for the left. ‘It has long been taken as axiomatic that in order to be left-wing you must be pro-choice,’ he complains. Well, I’m not crazy about abortions either. I think there is a point where an embryo becomes a human being and I think current law reflects this. I know a few people who’ve undergone the procedure, it’s not a thing I’ve seen done lightly. It’s a sad, distressing thing. In an ideal world no one would need abortions. No one would ever be raped, contraception would be 100% foolproof and love a thing that never went wrong.

Fact is though, the right not to have a child if you don’t want to is absolutely key to secular civilisation. Childbirth keeps women in their place. The right to opt out is crucial. For that reason I don’t truly believe you can be a feminist if you want to limit that right. Fuck with it and you fuck with freedom.

Another problem with pro life arguments is the awful aggressive cloying sentimentality that always has to accompany the process. As soon as the blue line comes up the discussion becomes about the needs of a hypothetical child over a living, breathing person. So Hasan writes: ‘Isn’t socialism about protecting the weak and vulnerable, giving a voice to the voiceless? Who is weaker or more vulnerable than the unborn child? Which member of our society needs a voice more than the mute baby in the womb?’ The best response to this comes from Wilbur Larch, the orphanage director and abortionist in John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. In a letter to FDR, he implores the President that ‘Mr. Roosevelt – you, of all people! – you should know that the unborn are not as wretched or as in need of our assistance as the born! Please take pity on the born!’

There is a wider implication here. Hasan writes:

Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and ‘defending the innocent’, while left-wingers fetishise ‘choice’, selfishness and unbridled individualism.

‘My body, my life, my choice.’ Such rhetoric has always left me perplexed.

To argue that the concept of choice is essentially rightwing, something evil and capitalist, is not a good position to be in. We are in danger of forgetting first principles. You can’t be a free or happy person without making choices. But there are prominent voices on the left, religious or religiously influenced, who argue for the community and the struggle over individuality, free decision making and personal autonomy. This has been developing for years but has become apparent now over the controversy around Galloway and Julian Assange. No wonder in the debate with David Aaronovitch Hasan claimed that free speech was being ‘fetishised’. ‘We were in a society dying,’ says Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, ‘of too much choice.’

The result is that smart women are leaving the left. Here’s Naomi McAuliffe:

To view women’s rights as simply desirable rather than essential, as an optional extra rather than necessary for our mere survival, is what allows us to negotiate with the Taliban for peace in Afghanistan. Peace is important but peace for women and girls can wait no matter how many 14 year old girls are shot in the head for wanting an education. It is the idea that women’s rights will be achieved AFTER other ‘more important’ ‘male’ rights are achieved. It allows people on the left to think that women’s right to justice for allegedly being raped and molested are not as important as an imaginary global conspiracy to jail a darling of the Left. The Left have a long history of postponing women’s rights until their socialist revolution has happened, their war has been won, their peace declared, their poster-boy has defeated capitalism. But of course it never comes. There is always another reason why women have to wait for their rights and why they are being selfish for having the temerity to fight for them.

7 Responses to “The Rise of the Authoritarian Left”

  1. pamelawelsh Says:

    Max, I really enjoyed reading this. Made me think and challenged some of my views. Thank you 🙂

  2. newcentrist Says:

    Nice post. The entire framing of “pro-abortion” versus “anti-abortion” is unfortunate. I do not know any advocates of abortion who think it should be used as a primary means of birth control. But as you point out, accidents happen, contraception fails and people fall out of love. I also agree that the choice to opt out is crucial in secular societies.

    At the same time, I do not see anywhere in Hasan’s piece where he is telling other people what to do. I generally loathe his politics, but in this case, he is simply explaining why he (a leftist) takes a “pro-life” position. He does not expect the left, en masse, to share his perspective any more than I think he would expect conservatives, en masse, to embrace a “pro-choice” stance even if there are a few pro-choice conservatives out there.

    I also do not think Hasan is saying choice, in and of itself, is a right-wing thing. I do think he is saying that self-interest and “unbridled individualism” as the primary motivation for human activity is something that is more prominent among conservatives than lefties, who have often emphasized collective identities, such as social-class, or more recently gender and race. At least that is the way I read that passage.

    Setting aside Hasan, I want to challenge your view that “childbirth keeps women in their place.” While the process of birth keeps women incapacitated, sometimes literally, the idea that raising children keeps women out of public life simply does not hold water today and has not for decades. This is not the 1930s. In fact, child rearing gives women a great deal of influence, even power, in Western societies. To be specific, here in the United States, mothers have had many more de facto legal rights than fathers. This legal power and control over children gave women an edge over men in that area of life. And it is no small matter.

    I realize this is difficult to bring up, especially if you are even remotely conscious of male chauvinism, the role of patriarchy, and all of the other critiques feminists routinely raise. I recognize and agree with much of those critiques. But, at the same time, the ability to guide the education, faith, etc. of your children is incredibly powerful. In fact, to the extent that the man stays in the picture after the child is born, it gives the woman more power in the relationship than when the two are a couple—married or unmarried—without children.

    Lastly, the two sides in this debate will never come to any conclusion as they are both coming from different starting points. To be very broad, it is about freedom versus justice. For you, the main issue is the individual’s (in this case, the woman’s) freedom. As you note, “Fuck with it and you fuck with freedom.” But for the other side, abortion is the murder of an innocent. A child. Which is the higher value in a free society? Freedom of the individual? Or protecting infants from being murdered? I am not asking this in a flippant manner. It is a real conundrum.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Nice post. I think, if you look at it internationally, and the developing world, birth control is crucial. Your last line is no conundrum for me. I think that before current UK legal limit, abortion is not murder. I would support earlier and easier access.

  3. Giles Says:

    Really nice article, Max.

    I’ve been confused by this division for many years and have never been able to square, for instance, PETA’s (to me the embodiment of the bourgeois liberal/left) reverence for animal, and sometimes unborn animal, rights with their concomitant embrace of the pro choice position. Surely a logical extension of the first would lead to a heartfelt pro life position.

    It pains me to ever agree with the oleaginous Hasan but I think he has a point regarding the swapping of ideologies. The Left/ Right division is simplistic but within that limited scale I consider myself a rightwinger and it’s precisely because I ‘fetishise ‘choice’, selfishness and unbridled individualism’ that I hold & have held for as long as I can remember a pro choice position.

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