September 15, 2021

The social left once stood up for all those not born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Is it now lost in the lifestyle and symbolism of a privileged minority? In this excerpt from her new book, Die Selbstgerechten (The Self-Righteous), prominent East German politician Sahra Wagenknecht explores what it means to be left in today’s political spectrum, and what has happened to the left in the age of identity politics.


Yes, the social left can still win. It can bring multinationals such as the consumer-goods company Unilever, to which the Knorr brand belongs, to their knees. Because of the racism debate on social networks, the company announced in August 2020 that the Knorr classic Gypsy Sauce will now appear on supermarket shelves under a new name: Hungarian-Style Paprika Sauce. Of course, the employment agreement that Unilever imposed on the 550 remaining employees at Knorr’s main plant in Heilbronn almost simultaneously—under threat of otherwise closing things down completely—involves downsizing, lower starting salaries, smaller wage increases, and Saturday work. Unlike the scenario with the Gypsy Sauce, none of this made headlines, let alone incited a leftwing Twitter shitstorm.

Good taste is our nature

But the fight is not just about names. It doesn’t stop at popular books, films, or even classical philosophers, either. To the regret of some activists, the demand to ban Gone with the Wind (1939), which won eight Oscars, has not yet been implemented. Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are still read in many university philosophy courses, although the two Enlightenment thinkers have long been exposed as racists in left-wing circles. And to date, the most important exponent of classical German philosophy, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, has not been eradicated despite passages in his texts that, in the opinion of Italian left-wing intellectuals, undoubtedly identify him as a sexist, which inspired the Facebook campaign “Sputiamo su Hegel” (We spit on Hegel).

The most hated man in philosophy

What is the left today? Many people don’t know anymore. They are only sure of one thing: they don’t like what they hear in public statements under the label “left,” and they deeply distrust the milieu they associate with it.

Left once stood for striving for justice and social security. It stood for rebellion against the top ten thousand, and solidarity with all those who did not grow up wealthy and undertake hard, often uninspiring work to earn a living. The aim of the left was to protect these people from poverty, humiliation, and exploitation, to open up educational opportunities and opportunities for advancement that would make their lives easier, more orderly, more predictable. Leftists believed in the ability to shape politics within the framework of the democratic nation-state. Leftists have long participated in struggles against discrimination, such as the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, given the old liberal imperative that nobody should be disadvantaged because of their skin color, religion, or way of life.

But in the left-liberal mainstream of our time, such traditional views are seen as old-fashioned and backward-looking. The public image today is dominated by a type that I call the lifestyle left, for whom politics are no longer about social or economic problems, but questions of consumer habits, moral attitudes, and above all speech. In their purest form, the various green parties embody this lifestyle-left political offering, but it has also become the dominant tendency in most countries’ social democratic, socialist, and other left-facing parties. For the political-cultural worldview of the lifestyle left, the term “left-wing liberalism” has recently become established, whereas “left-wing lifestyle liberalism” would be much more appropriate. It should be noted that this contemporary flavor has nothing to do with the intellectual and political current that was once understood as left.

The lifestyle left lives in its own new world. One of its convictions is that the nation-state is an obsolete model—that today’s global citizen has little loyalty to their home country. In general, the lifestyle left values ​​autonomy and self-fulfillment more than tradition or community. It finds values ​​such as performance, diligence, and effort uncool. This is especially true for the younger generation, who have been so gently escorted into adult life by caring, mostly well-off helicopter parents that they have never known existential social fears and the pressures that arise from them. Dad’s small fortune and mum’s relationships provide security to make it through unpaid internships or professional failures.

Brush up on your vocabulary

Since the lifestyle left has hardly ever had personal experience on the disadvantaged end of an actual social issue, social issues are only of marginal interest. The path to a fair and nondiscriminatory society no longer leads through the dull old topics from the social economy— wages, pensions, taxes, unemployment insurance—but now through symbolism and language. Accordingly, everyday language is constantly scoured for words that could hurt anyone and should be avoided from now on. They are then replaced by new word creations that, at least among the strict believers in the lifestyle left, lead to an idiosyncratic mode of self-expression. Outsiders may not be able to discern the discrimination in terms like “refugee” or “lectern,” or in the designation of “mother” or “father,” or why dubious asterisks are repeatedly found in the middle of certain words. But anyone who belongs to the inner circle knows the rules and obeys them.

In the footsteps of Rosa Luxemburg?

Perhaps it is a bit irritating that the norms of correct speaking keep changing. New buzzwords keep popping up, which you should of course learn and start using as quickly as possible. One recent example would be “cis women” to designate female citizens who are not transsexuals. If you want to take part in left-wing lifestyle discussions without blame, you need one thing above all: enough free time to stay up to date on questions of correct language.

The typical lifestyle leftist lives in a big city or at least a chic university town, rarely anywhere on the margins. It is studying or has a university degree and good foreign language skills, advocates a post-growth economy, and maintains a healthy diet. Meat eaters, diesel car drivers, and Mallorca low-cost air travelers are a horror. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t drive or never gets on a plane. With the exception of corona-times, it enjoys traveling and usually flies particularly far, because mobility and cosmopolitanism are part of its DNA. But this is not about cheap tourism; the trips are educational, about getting to know other cultures, visiting the last remaining wild orangutans, or to getting closer to one’s inner self at an Ayurvedic retreat. Traversing city routes by bike or electric car eases the conscience.

E-cars are going strong

In principle, there is nothing wrong with people subscribing to certain values ​​and shaping their lives accordingly. If you can afford it and like it, why not? There are undoubtedly more unpleasant folks than metropolitan vegans who drive their children to school in electric cars, avoid plastic packaging, and strive to minimize their carbon emissions, even if they themselves have a not-insignificant carbon footprint. What makes the lifestyle left so unsympathetic in the eyes of many, and especially the less fortunate, is its tendency to regard its own privilege as a personal virtue, to glorify its worldview and way of life as the epitome of progressiveness and responsibility. Those on the lifestyle left exude the complacency of the morally superior, the conviction that they are on the side of good and reason. It is the arrogance with which they look down on the worldviews, the needs, even the language of those people who have never been able to attend university, or live in a small-town environment, or buy the ingredients for their barbecue from Aldi or Walmart because that money has to last until the end of the month. It is their unmistakable lack of compassion for those who have to fight much harder for their little wealth, if they have any at all, and who may sometimes appear tougher or grimmer because of this.

Indeed, a bigotry that is difficult to deny certainly contributes to the low public image of the lifestyle left. Anyone who struggles to afford a vacation once a year, or who has to live on a small pension despite a long life of hard work, does not appreciate preaching of material renunciation from those who have never lacked for anything. No one wants to hear about the benefits of immigration to our society from friends of multiculturalism who send own children to schools where they get to know other cultures solely through literature and art classes.

When nothing goes right go left

Of course, there are differences among lifestyle leftists. Not everyone who campaigns for immigration, uses gender asterisks, and believes that climate change is primarily a question of consumer habits was born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Not all of them are wealthy, either. There may even be some who haven’t been to university. But such lifestyle leftists are outnumbered. The others are the vast majority.

There are also differences across lifestyle leftists in attitudes toward the less privileged. Some simply despise them. When Hillary Clinton insulted Trump voters as a basket of deplorables in 2016, it was certainly one of the few honest moments in her entire election campaign. The term “white trash” for the white American working class has long been promulgated by left-wing liberals. In Germany, old white men are a popular enemy in left-wing lifestyle circles. “The proll” is also often used to denote a group of people about whom one can freely express disparagement. When it comes to them, sensitive considerations regarding offensive language suddenly no longer apply.

Trash of all colors and countries unite!

Of course, the lifestyle left doesn’t register the fact that they continually demand an open, tolerant society, but often display a terrifying intolerance when dealing with divergent views. This cognitive dissonance is an inevitable outcome of their staunch belief that left liberalism is ultimately not an opinion, but a question of decency. For left-wing liberals, anyone who deviates from the party line is not a dissident, but an actual bad person, even a misanthrope or a Nazi. This perspective explains the aggression to which positions, but also people, who move outside the left-liberal worldview or simply violate one of its holy commandments are subjected. After all, (almost) everything is allowed in the fight against Nazis. And the lifestyle leftist is only liberal in the orbit of its own thinking.

Sahra Wagenknecht, born 1969 Jena, Germany, is a politician, economist, author, and publicist. She is a member of The Left and was parliamentary chairperson of the party from 2010 to 2019. Since 2009, she has been a representative in the Bundestag.

Translated from German by Paula Levi
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