Exits, the left, and liberalism

Earlier this week, my colleague Mark Lutter attempted to make an impassioned case for the left to embrace the political practice of “exit,” while not making much of an effort to define it in a way that a leftist could make much sense of it.  I say this not because the practice itself is incomprehensible to the left, but because leftist ideas of mass “exit” are already in existence in so many places.  The Scottish National Party leans heavily to the left, as do the Bloc et Parti Québécois*.  The current efforts for Catalan independence are being spearheaded by a leftist party, the Republican Left of Catalonia, with backing from the pragmatic Convergence and Union. SYRIZA, the leftist coalition in Greece led by Alexis Tsipras (above), is pushing hard for a general election after success in European elections last month, so as to set up a possible exit from the European Union after being under severe austerity in recent years. The list goes on.

Of course, with the exception of SYRIZA (which we’ll get to in a moment), one could argue that most of these secessionist efforts are ethnically oriented, and perhaps not what is meant by “exit” in Lutter’s mind. So, let us look at the more basic terminology, the act of free dissociation. Lutter rightly points out that exit was previously associated with the classical left. The Paris Commune of 1871 could be framed as one of the better leftist representations of that from the time period: A dissociation from the nascent Third French Republic in order to protect the interests and livelihoods of the city’s workers from the political machinations of the majority-rural French population.

However, Lutter is not interested in the left of modern times, even though it still exists — albeit as a marginalized fringe group — in American politics.  Liberalism and progressivism, strains of political thought that are often haphazardly associated with the left, are Lutter’s true concern. Yet, both those philosophies are completely incompatible with the concept of “exit.” Why? The answer falls on the basis of what purpose “exit” serves. Lutter’s use of the term “survival” nails the principle: “Exit,” in his mind, serves as an act of self-preservation from change, or from the pressure to change. It serves as a means to survive upheaval of one’s way of life because of these changes.

The important thing to understand about liberal thinking, be it economic liberalism or social progressivism, is that its purpose is to instigate change itself, or at least embrace it. In the liberal’s mind, to allow any and all persons** to opt out of these changes defeats the purpose of making changes to begin with. Their primary act of self-preservation, and often their means of advancing change, is accommodation and compromise. In essence, “exit” by Lutter’s terms is a defense against liberalism, even if one were to create liberal communities as he and Scott Alexander suggested.

Such a point demonstrates that simply taking a reductionist attitude when discussing a unique political philosophy represents a lack of depth and inherent weakness in the argument. But just as importantly, it demonstrates that there can be a certain leftist interest in the idea of “exit.” Going back to SYRIZA, the coalition’s platform has as a major plank the option of exiting the euro, and the EU to a lesser extent. The leftist justification in this is quite simple: To exit here would be an act of self-preservation for the Greek working class, who suffered the worst of austerity through pay cuts, layoffs, and other economic measures forced through the current Greek government by the EU and International Monetary Fund.

Because the left, as a political force, is non-existent in America outside of academia and tiny enclaves, it’s not surprising that Lutter would look to the liberals to reconcile his argument for “exit.” But he does not need to look hard to find American leftists these days that would find his concept appealing.  The social left, especially those revanchists who have usurped the mantle of social justice from more egalitarian forces, would stand to benefit in particular.  With transgender activists attacking a prominent gay rights activist because he used words that apparently only transgendered people are allowed to say, certain black bloggers calling for a form of cultural segregation by (for example) allowing only black teachers to teach black students, and daily accusations of cultural appropriation on social media as prolific as the grains of wheat on a farm, the idea of dissociating from an apathetically bigoted general populace would sound appetizing to these supposedly marginalized groups.

If Lutter wishes to make a leftist case for “exit,” he would do well to engage these people, for liberals have no interest in running contrary to their entire purpose. Of course, the revanchism that defines the social left will make it a tough sell, and that’s assuming that Lutter would not be branded as a privileged white male and thus unworthy to have any say unless he confesses his sin of privilege. But it’s worth a shot.


*It is important to note that the Bloc’s immolation in the 2011 general elections was partly due to the leftist NDP making a more appealing case on Québécois matters to an exit-weary province, while the Parti’s collapse in April’s provincial elections was mainly due to them all but calling for a third sovereignty referendum if elected.

**By this I mean not just groups of people given exemption to certain laws (such as religious, age, or disability exemptions), but any person at all.  The former is a form of accommodation, the latter is not.

(Source Image:  Joanna, CC-BY 2.0)


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