Like The Hub?
Join our community.

Eric Kaufmann: ‘Left-liberal extremism’ has turned Canada into an international anomaly


Canada is currently suffering from left-liberal extremism the likes of which the world has never seen. This excess is not socialist or classically liberal, but specifically “left-liberal.” It is evident in everything from this country’s world record immigration and soaring rents to state-sanctioned racial discrimination in hiring and sentencing, to the government-led shredding of the country’s history and memory. Rowing back from this overreach will not be the work of voters in one election, but of generations of Canadians. 

The task is especially difficult in Canada, because, after the 1960s, the country (outside of Quebec) transferred its soul from British loyalism to cultural left-liberalism. Its new national identity (multiculturalist, post-national, with no “core” identity) was based on a quest for moral superiority measured using a left-liberal yardstick. Canada was to be the most diverse, most equitable, most inclusive nation in world history. No rate of immigration, no degree of majority self-abasement, no level of minority sensitivity, would ever be too much.

In my new book The Third Awokening, I define woke as the making sacred of historically marginalized race, gender, and sexual identity groups. Woke cultural socialism, the idea of equal outcomes and emotional harm protection for totemic minorities, represents the ideological endpoint of these sacred values. Like economic socialism, the result of cultural socialism is immiserization and a decline in human flourishing. We must stand against this extremism in favour of moderation.

The woke sanctification of identity did not stem primarily from Marxism, which rejected identity talk as bourgeois, but from a fusion of liberal humanism with the New Left’s identitarian version of socialism. What it produced was a hybrid which is neither Marxism nor classical liberalism. 

Left-liberalism is moderate on economics, favouring a mixed capitalism in which regulation and the welfare state ameliorate the excesses of the market, without strangling economic growth. Its suspicion of communist authoritarianism helped insulate it from the lure of Soviet Moscow. 

On culture, however, left-liberalism has no guardrails. When it comes to group inequality and harm protection, its claims are open-ended, with institutions and the nation castigated as too male, pale, and stale. For believers, the only way forward is through an unrestricted increase in minority representation. They will not entertain the idea that the distribution of women and minorities across different occupations could reflect cultural or psychological diversity as opposed to “systemic” discrimination. This is the origin of the letters “D” and “E” in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Rather than seeking to optimize equity and diversity for maximal human flourishing, these are ends in themselves that brook no limits.

Left-liberals fail to ring-fence the degree of sensitivity that majority groups are supposed to display toward minority groups. Their emphasis on inclusivity through speech suppression rounds out the “I” in DEI. From racial sensitivity training (starting in the 1970s) to the “inclusive” avoidance of words like “Latino” or “mother” that offend and create a so-called hostile environment that silences subaltern groups, majorities are expected to police their speech. 

While this is reasonable when it’s meant to mock someone’s heritage, left-liberals swiftly overstep when they muzzle free expression around policy issues like immigration, crime, and education —or writing novels about groups other than one’s own. They become delusional when they silence uncomfortable truths such as the fact that, to date, documentary and forensic evidence contradict the claim that 215 children from a residential school in Kamloops were buried in a “mass grave.” In Canada, this misinformation produced a government—and media—approved moral panic which led to some 70 anti-Christian arson attacks on churches. 

We need to understand progressive extremism as the end product of left-liberal logic. Woke is not a deviation from a virtuous left-liberal order, but a continuation and acceleration of it; a feature and not a bug. It represents the apotheosis of a left-liberal fusion that is more than a century old and has dominated Western high culture for over 60 years.

The first recognizably modern cultural left-liberalism was the Liberal Progressive movement which began in the first decade of the 20th century in the United States. Its spirit soon became infused with the ecumenical movement represented by the newly liberalized Protestantism of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), beginning a few years later. Both championed liberal immigration and defended an early version of multiculturalism, opposing the “100 percent” Americanization of newcomers propounded at the time. This marked a notable change from the ecumenical movement’s pre-1905 Social Gospel Progressivism, based on temperance, anti-Catholicism, and immigration restriction. 

Liberal Progressives did many good things. They defended European immigrants from Anglo-Protestant stereotypes and prejudice. But they felt no need to acknowledge the value of the Anglo heritage, perhaps because it was so dominant, they thought this superfluous. When WASP bohemian modernists like Randolph Bourne came along in 1916 and denounced their own group as boring, repressed, and uncreative compared to the exciting immigrant cultures of Europe, no left-liberals spoke up against this sweeping and reductive ethnic stereotyping.

What was established was an anti-majoritarian template that has shaped intellectual life down to the present. For instance, ethnically British left-liberal political philosophers such as Amy Gutmann or Canada’s Charles Taylor routinely derided their heritage as boring or sterile compared to the far more interesting immigrant groups. WASPy places such as pre-1970s Toronto were dismissed in similar terms as culturally repressed and uninteresting. 

A pro-immigration supporter attends a rally near the Canada-U.S. border in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., Saturday, October 19, 2019. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

From the late 1960s, this was overlaid with a moralizing narrative casting white majorities as oppressive and immoral. Susan Sontag, wrote in the anti-communist left-wing magazine Partisan Review in 1966, attacking the “white race” as the “cancer of human history.” This genre of anti-whiteness built on an earlier anti-WASP tradition reaching back to Bourne, and has recently been exemplified by New York Times writers such as Nikole Hannah Jones (“the white race is the biggest murderer, rapist, pillager, and thief of the modern world”) or Sara Jeong (“Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”)

Out of all this emerged left-liberalism’s “majority bad, minorities good” moral reflex. Anyone who exemplifies this attitude receives plaudits while those who question it risk being denounced as racist, sexist, or transphobic. The result is a ratcheting left-liberalism that has grown extreme enough to converge with the post-Marxism radicalism of critical race and gender theory. Given this, how can we be surprised when outrage entrepreneurs adopt a totalizing framework that paints comparatively “white” Jewish Israelis as evil and relatively “racialized” Palestinians as innocents?

The way back from left-liberalism is difficult because it is now the dominant ideology in our elite institutions. To oppose DEI is to criticize the deceptive woke slogan “be kind.” Many well-meaning liberals view this as tantamount to rejecting pets and apple pie: morally reprehensible and incomprehensible. The problem, of course, is that showing “kindness” towards certain groups (transwomen, Indigenous Peoples) entails showing unkindness towards those who are accused of harming them (gender-critical women, white people). The moral complexity of the world has been collapsed into a simplistic black-and-white binary.

Rather than determining rights on the basis of intersectional oppression points, a society that is truly good should be one that treats everyone equally, making only as much effort to pursue equality and sensitivity as is optimal to advance human flourishing. Our fetishization of what Jonathan Haidt terms the equality and care/harm moral foundations is leading to unequal group treatment and declining expressive freedom, social cohesion, and trust, culminating in an assault on our truth-based scientific and legal order.

While the common sense of the majority of Canadians opposes left-liberal extremism by a two-to-one margin, there are—in contrast to the United States and Europe—few elite checks on runaway humanitarian-egalitarian radicalism in our culture.

Canada has staked all its chips on the left-liberal square. The pathologies of this belief system are increasingly manifest, but it is far from certain that the country can change course.

Patrick Luciani: Utopian ideas always sound nice. But never underestimate the ugliness of human nature


In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani examines Free and Equal: A Manifesto for a Just Society (Knopf, 2023, 2024) by Daniel Chandler, which puts forth how the ideas of John Rawls can be implemented in our times for progressive political ends.

After the Second World War, countries in Northern Europe, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. moved closer to what we know as democratic welfare states. Not all at the same pace, but there was a general belief that governments had an obligation to help the poor with programs that supported education and health, along with pensions when they retired. That momentum grew stronger over the years. 

With the spread of more programs, resistance came from those forced to pay for these programs with higher taxes, and they had a point. Classical political thinkers John Locke and American James Madison provided some justification for a small but limited government to protect property rights. Even Karl Marx provided a philosophical top-down justification for communism and the control of all capital and resources. But there wasn’t a philosophy justifying or underpinning a welfare state. 

In a transformative moment in 1971, Harvard philosopher John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, a work that would revolutionize political philosophy. Rawls’ argument was a profound endeavour to reconcile the seemingly conflicting ideals of freedom and equality in a pluralistic society, a departure from the conventional political theories. Rawls’ book would cement his status as the most significant political theorist of the past century. Five decades after its publication, it still dominates contemporary political thought and debate. 

Daniel Chandler’s book Free and Equal explains how Rawls’s thinking can still create “a more humane, equal, and sustainable society for our times” and a realistic utopia if only we had the courage to follow his lead. 

Rawls defended a greater role for the state through a thought experiment following the tradition of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacque Rousseau’s social contract theories. He proposed we start from an original position where “we” as a society gather to design a system of government behind what he called a “veil of ignorance.” Behind this veil, we have no memory of our race, religion, family history, status in society, or whether we are rich or poor. We don’t even know our genders, ambitions, or intellectual capacities. Our amnesia is complete behind this veil. 

Under these conditions, what kind of society would we choose to live in? Rawls concludes we would rationally select a system that guarantees the highest level of political rights to pursue our goals in a free society and, second, what Rawls called the “difference principle” that inequalities in society are allowed if they benefit everyone. This system assures a level of income distribution that would secure a good life for all, especially for the least advantaged. We would choose that system because it serves our self-interest. 

Rawls further justifies sharing wealth and income because much of life is a matter of chance; no one truly deserves their intellectual or creative talents because they are distributed by nature randomly. Even the talent for hard work is an accident of chance. It is only fair that the neurosurgeon, brilliant enough to get into medical school and earn a million dollars a year, should share some of that income with the janitor earning $30,000 who never finished high school. Income should be shared so we all have the best chances to reach our human potential, starting with access to good schools and an income to round out the rough edges of life. 

Rawls isn’t an easy read. His arduous style requires a hard-backed chair to keep the reader’s attention. (Neither was he an easy listen, a fact I learned personally when attending some of his lectures in my own university days.) Chandler humanizes Rawls’ work by clearly explaining his ideas to the average reader while defending a democratic form of liberalism against what he believes is a dominant neoliberalism that puts markets ahead of compassion. Chandler spends most of his book arguing for progressive government programs—caused by the widening gap between rich and poor—including higher minimum wages, stronger unions, and a guaranteed annual income while abolishing all private education and riding elections of private money. 

Professor Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has agitated critics on both sides of the political spectrum over the 50 years since its publication. The extreme Left has attacked Rawls for defending private ownership even though society would be left poorer but better off under a system of greater equality. On the Right, any form of taxation is unjust if wealth is earned legally without coercion, as Robert Nozick argues in Anarchy, State and Utopia in his response to Rawls’s defence of the welfare state. Moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt argues that eradicating inequality is a false goal when our attention should be on diminishing poverty—two very different things.

Chandler’s book is subtitled “A Manifesto for a Just Society” in the spirit of Marx’s phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to need.” If you raise the cost of those with ability and lower the cost of those with need, don’t be surprised if you get less of the first and more of the second.  

Aside from underplaying the damage caused by identity politics and alienating many of the poor Rawls wants to help, Chandler’s greatest weakness is his underestimation of human nature. It may be true that those who enjoy the benefits of their gifts are the lucky ones, but many find it difficult to believe that all good fortune is undeserved or that effort plays no part in life’s success. Pushing that conclusion too hard will always get a strong reaction when most people see that determination and free will dominate how we lead our lives and the following benefits or costs. Diminishing earned accomplishments won’t bring us closer to a Rawlsian world searching for a “realistic utopia.” It will end up giving us the opposite.