“I will begin with the pros of Murray’s book before outlining my disagreements. First, it is well-written and well-organized. His prose crackles with wit and salt, with pointed examples often blending seamlessly with political commentary.”
he anti-Social Justice Warrior (SJW) monograph written by an up-and-coming conservative commentator is practically a genre of literature at this point. Many of these books are the progeny of William F. Buckley’s classic (and comparably heady) 1951 book God and Man at Yale, which was perhaps the first polemic directed against campus activism and academic progressivism. Since then, everyone from Ann Coulter to Ben Shapiro has written about the dangers posed by “social justice” approaches to gender, race, and identity. It seems to almost be a rite of passage. Some of these works—like Peter Lawler’s American Heresies and Higher Education—are thoughtful and interesting, even for those of us who disagree with the main arguments. Others are just rivers of partisan vitriol assembled into disjointed chapters, which barely hang together as a concept—let alone a book. Douglas Murray’s new book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. While I disagree with most of it, there are segments where Murray does make a compelling and well-articulated argument for his positions. But there are other portions where he stumbles into one sidedness and partisanship. Murray’s book is also let down by its tendency to lean on exposition and anecdote rather than explanation. He does marshal plenty of examples where progressive activists behaved aggressively or went too far. But there is little deep explanation of the cultural and historical conditions engendering social disharmony: an account of where the “madness” of the title comes from—and how this differs from earlier epochs. This makes the book more a chronicle of events, rather than a sustained analysis.
In the Interest of Fairness
I will begin with the pros of Murray’s book before outlining my disagreements. First, it is well-written and well-organized. His prose crackles with wit and salt, with pointed examples often blending seamlessly with political commentary. It is also written in a less polemical style than one might have expected, given Murray’s association with websites such as PragerU. In the introduction, Murray concedes points that many progressives would find appealing. For instance, he recognizes that there are serious problems with neoliberal capitalism (which came to the fore in 2008), that social justice activism can produce good results, and he acknowledges why many millennials and Gen Zers might be dissatisfied with the status quo:
“Although the foundations had been laid for several decades, it is only since the financial crash of 2008 that there has been a march into the mainstream of ideas that were previously known solely on the obscurest fringes of academia. The attractions of this new set of beliefs are obvious enough. It is not clear why a generation which can’t accumulate capital should have any great love of capitalism. And it isn’t hard to work out why a generation who believe they may never own a home could be attracted to an ideological world view which promises to sort out every interpretation of the world through the lens of ‘social justice’….To date ‘social justice’ has run the furthest because it sounds—and in some versions is—attractive.”
This comparative evenhandedness is most apparent in the first chapter of the book, which deals with social justice approaches to sexual orientation. As an openly gay man who came of age when homosexuality was ubiquitously taboo, Murray expresses sympathy for movements advocating for equality and respect. However, he points out that some social justice activists go too far in insisting that all debates about the nature of sexual orientation are settled—and that history has vindicated their particular perspective. This ignores the considerable political controversies that exist even among progressives. For instance, debates exist over the best way to advance equality for gays and lesbians (trans individuals are discussed separately) and what that would look like. Some believe that being gay or a lesbian is just one part of a person’s identity. These individuals, consequently, see few problems with integrating into liberal societies so long as their decisions on whom to love are respected. Other activists are radicals who believe that sexual orientation is integral to identity and want more dramatic changes to the status quo. These political arguments persist even within the activist community in part because we do not have all the answers to even some basic questions yet. For instance, Murray observes that there are understandable disputes over whether sexual orientation is a “hardware” or a “software” issue: Is it determined genetically, or is it—in part or wholly—the result of sociation and choice?
In light of these controversies, Murray claims that we should have a degree of sympathy for those who do not agree with our own political conclusions. This call for humility applies to issues of race, feminism, and trans identity as well. To an extent, I agree with Murray. While I believe that discrimination and prejudice are great evils which must be overcome, progressives do ourselves few favors by merely asserting claims that still need to be demonstrated. This is not to suggest there are not moments where condemnation and militant action are warranted; no one should feel compelled to explain themselves to a Nazi who wants to eradicate them. But when it comes to convincing moderates and even open-minded conservatives, there is much to gain and little to lose by explaining our positions clearly and gradually winning hearts and minds on issues like equality for gays, women, and minorities. Demanding acquiescence not only risks a reactionary backlash ala post-modern conservatives such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro; it also elides the serious need for those of us on the political left to reach internal compromises on contentious issues. This does not mean accepting intolerance but, rather, undermining it through long-term efforts to win the argument.
Unfortunately, Murray himself often evades such complexity in his treatment of figures and issues where his sympathies are less acute. I will move on to discussing that now.
The Slow Death of Precision
“This is not about mishearings or misunderstandings. It is more likely an example of people deliberately and lazily adopting simplified misrepresentations of what other people are saying in order to avoid the difficult discussion that would otherwise have to take place.”
Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds
One of the major tropes Murray leans on throughout The Madness of Crowds is the idea of complexity. Debates about women’s equality, racial integration, and trans identity are complicated. Given that, activists should stop acting as though they have all the answers, and they should look seriously at the other side’s concerns. Fair enough. Unfortunately, Murray himself often slides into misrepresentations and caricatures in lieu of actually taking the opposing arguments seriously. Enough of the book falls into these pits that it can be quite disappointing, given Murray’s occasional efforts to be more even handed. More seriously still, the book invokes complexity often, without actually reflecting on its sources. Murray has much to say about the dogmatism and cynicism of our epoch. But there is little in the way of explaining its foundations.
Problems begin in the ostentatiously titled “Interlude: The Marxist Foundations” after chapter one. This is Murray’s most sustained effort at discussing the theoretical basis for social justice activism, extending to about 12 pages. Considering the many dozens of pages devoted to celebrity foibles and paragraphs waxing on about fake nipples, this is a very slender contribution. Murray deserves some credit for citing specific works by authors, such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. This is an improvement on figures like Jordan Peterson, who also tries to describe the philosophy of the contemporary left in a dozen pages through 12 Rules for Life but rarely cites anything in particular to make the point. But Murray’s analysis is still undermined by serious exegetical errors.
To give one example, Murray claims that, “one of the traits of Marxist thinkers has always been that they do not stumble or self-question in the face of contradiction, as anybody aiming at the truth might.” But this entirely misunderstands the Hegelian idealist and Marxist materialist dialectic. The point of dialectical analysis is not to suggest that we should live with contradiction—or that contradictions are a good thing demonstrating the truth. Instead, it is precisely the opposite: Our ideologies and material conditions are ridden with contradictory imperatives they can never fully overcome. Capitalist societies are driven by consumer spending. Yet, many market factors do not pay their workers enough money to buy things. This leads to a crisis of underconsumption. Masters want to dominate slaves to feel better about themselves but can never receive the recognition and aplomb they desire from someone they have reduced to a sub-human and whose opinion should not matter. The failure to overcome these contradictions is—on a Hegelian and Marxist analysis—what forces a society to confront its limitations and edge closer to a better system. Also important to note is that Murray largely ignores the appeal of such dialectical reasoning across the political spectrum. Marx is not the only one who found Hegel tremendously appealing. Many conservatives, including the late Roger Scruton, considered Hegel an important and even seminal figure. Indeed, since the Prussian philosopher’s death, there has been an ongoing dispute between Left and Right Hegelians, which has immensely influenced many different political traditions. Murray would have done well to recognize this intellectual history rather than sweeping past it as quickly as possible.
Or to give another example, Murray claims that Michel Foucault and his disciples regard society in an, “unforgiving light when everything is viewed solely through the prism of power.” But here Murray is applying precisely the negative interpretation of power that Foucault insisted we avoid. Foucault’s argument that all spheres of life invariably involve some form of power is not a claim that everything boils down to power—or even that power is inherently evil. Indeed, Foucault insisted that productive power can be emancipatory, leading individuals to fight against tyranny and oppression. He also had a great deal to say about the virtues of friendship and love as a means of getting through life. Moreover, when Foucault died, he was in the midst of entering a new phase analyzing the ethics of self-creation. Tragically, his life was cut short, and we will never know what he concluded. But the portrayal of Foucault as a relentless mope is simply incorrect.
These basic mistakes reflect a tendency of right-wing commentators to suppose that the way a major left-wing thinker’s work is rhetorically invoked by activists and students is reflective of what they actually believe. But that makes no more sense than supposing Nietzsche was a proto-Nazi because some on the Alt-right occasionally invoke him. If you are going to engage in a philosophical “interlude,” you owe it to your readers to go past the stereotypes and actually engage seriously with what intelligent opponents have argued. This is another area where Murray falls short.
More serious than these problems is the relative flatness of Murray’s analysis. As mentioned, his book goes on to describe many of the comical and extreme behaviors of today’s Left, while throwing in a few unusual jabs at pop stars such as Nicki Minaj (for her song about the ass). The latter come across as somewhat cantankerous; while earlier days did indeed have G.K Chesterton and other luminaries offering commentary, there was plenty of forgettable schlock produced then as well. Time has a way of weeding out the forgettable and preserving the worthwhile. This tendency to rely on anecdotes about activist extremism, celebrity parables, and so on becomes numbing after a while. While some on the political right have an endless appetite for the 93rd SJW fail compilation, the rest of us want something more. Murray is often correct when highlighting where activists assume certainty where there is actually complexity, though I might point out that a fairer approach might acknowledge that this problem is hardly unique to one end of the political spectrum. But the more robust point is that Murray offers little in the way of guidance on why such forms of dogmatism (not to mention the cynicism embodied in decadence and withdrawal) have become characteristic of post-modern politics. His work depicts without explaining, analyzing symptoms without getting at the root of the disease.
At best, Murray’s position seems to be that we have lost “faith” in our traditional values, and—at worst—he invokes paranoid and illiberal fears about migrants fleeing serious danger as a substitute for collective reflection. Even if it were true that we lost faith in our value systems that does not ask the more interesting question of why we abandoned our faith in the first place. Value systems which even pragmatically function relatively well in satisfying society’s needs (even if their philosophical truth is contentious) do not tend to lose adherents. As Marx, Nietzsche, and countless other sharp critics of modernity and post-modernity would point out, we lose faith in value systems because they rot from within (incidentally, this is where an analysis of contradictions can be helpful—since they point to areas where an ideology that is ultimately about serving power cannot overcome its own limitations). One of the reasons people may not have faith in Western value systems anymore is how frequently their proponents live up to standards. In the most Christian country in the world, millions are still denied access to basic healthcare and educations. This is despite injunctions about the need for Samaritanism and love of neighbor, which are integral to Christian ethics. Indeed, the insistence that Christianity goes beyond even the Golden rule of “do unto others as they would do unto you” by loving them as you love yourself imposes a very serious burden when taken authentically. This is what writers such as Kierkegaard observed in his Works of Love. Or to consider another example, those who talk endlessly about the dangers posed by radical Islam and migrants—including Murray himself in his neoconservative period—are, nevertheless, quite happy to wage countless wars destroying Middle Eastern countries. They then turn around and describe Islam as a religion of intolerance and violence, which is why those fleeing regional instability as per their rights under the UNHCR should be denied refugee status. Finally, we are constantly told how fantastic neoliberal capitalism is—despite real wages stagnating in many regions for decades and inequality increasing within developed countries. Murray himself wisely acknowledges that many have every right to be angry at the current system, since it has frequently failed to deliver the goods. But it might be worth focusing on this as a source for the contemporary “madness” and anger many feel, as cannier conservative critics such as Patrick Deneen have done in his Why Liberalism Failed.
If Murray wants an explanation for the decline of Western values, each of these trends might be a good place to start.
Conclusion: Cynicism and Dogmatism in Post-Modernity
There are, of course, many, many different accounts of where the post-modern tendency towards dogmatic fundamentalism and decadent cynicism come from. Superficial commentary tends to focus on individual representation of these trends without probing the deep roots. Since Marx, many progressives point to capitalism as a primary driver of our post-modern condition. There are many reasons for this. One is because—from a capitalist perspective—there can, ultimately, be no sacred values. Everything has a price that can be traded off against something else, which means the world essentially becomes filled with commodities of relative worth. Jürgen Habermas makes this point when he observes how capitalist societies were “parasitic” on the order provided by conservative tradition until traditionalism became a barrier to further commodification and market expansion. At this point, tradition is chucked by capitalism, whether through upending local communities by moving jobs across the globe or by marketing easy and decadent forms of entertainment to a mass audience. The consequence of this development is a world where people believe they can be and do anything but believe in nothing.
Similar stories are told on the political right these days. Commentators like Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony (discussed here) point out that permissive liberalism was originally backed up by enduring feelings of communal solidarity and shared identity. We shared enough in common to gradually allow more freedom and political involvement since our values and beliefs were more or less the same. This meant that we could retain a sense of who we are and maintain a form of order liberty based on uncoerced social norms. However, as liberalism grew from a political to a comprehensive doctrine, it gradually colonized all other spheres of life. Even the uncoerced social norms about which Murray waxes nostalgic eventually came to be seen as barriers to the full expression of my unique and individual identity. Some went further by insisting that even talking about a unique but fixed identity was essentializing, implying that I am one thing or another and always must be. Instead, I should be allowed to create whom I am without inhibition, even using the most advanced medical technologies to do so if possible. The problem for these more formidable conservative thinkers is not social justice warriors per se, since they are little more than a product of the times. It is liberalism and even conservative rationalism, which are responsible for the crisis of post-modernity.
I am far more sympathetic to the former argument than the latter and believe it demonstrates why halting the spread of post-modern dogmatism and cynicism means establishing a more equal and fair society ala John Rawls. But regardless of which story sounds better to you, none of these weighty matters are discussed by Murray in any depth. At best they are gestured to by invoking the complexity of our current situation—or decrying the madness that seems to have afflicted just one side of the political spectrum. This makes The Madness of Crowds a mixed bag. It is well-written and offers some welcome olive branches across the political aisle. Murray also is correct to emphasize the need to stop retreating from complexity. But why and how we see so much “derangement” today is never given the in-depth analysis the issue deserves.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof