“Anyone who disagrees with me is a neoliberal racist!”

//“Anyone who disagrees with me is a neoliberal racist!”

I’ve spent much of last year or so feeling baffled at the unpleasant depths to which debate in education has sunk. The approach to which I’ve always tried to aspire is to advance an argument based on the quality of an idea, and to discuss my (inevitably partial) view of the evidence supporting the that idea. I can often descend to dogmatism but never, I hope, do I completely insulate myself against reality. When someone engages with my argument and advances a convincing counter-argument, I try hard to suppress the negative effects of cognitive dissonance and think about their views. Sometime I see that their argument is better than mine, and I accept this with the best grace I can muster. This is how rational debate is supposed to work.

Increasingly though, counter-argument is based on what has been described as “cryptonormativism”. Say what? In this article Joseph Heath reveals the antecedents of this tortured neologism:

A long time ago, Habermas wrote a critical essay on Foucault, in which he accused him of “cryptonormativism.” The accusation was that, although Foucault’s work was clearly animated by a set of moral concerns, he refused to state clearly what his moral commitments were, and instead just used normatively loaded vocabulary, like “power,” or “regime,” as rhetorical devices, to induce the reader to share his normative assessments, while officially denying that he was doing any such thing. The problem, in other words, is that Foucault was smuggling in his values, while pretending he didn’t have any. A genuinely critical theory, Habermas argued, has no need for this subterfuge, it should introduce its normative principles explicitly, and provide a rational defence of them.

Heath identifies a trend for labelling anything perceived as being “a bad thing” as neoliberal. The trouble with this, he argues, is that no one actually admits to being a neoliberal. In case you’re unsure, neoliberalism is generally defined as being a modified form of liberalism tending to favour free-market capitalism, but this would be, I’m sure, contested by some. I’m no economist, but when I read the descriptions of neoliberalism offered by Wikipedia, I can’t help but want to distance myself. Instinctively, I want to agree that increasing the role of the private sector in public projects like education sounds like it could be “a bad thing”. But what does it really mean?

This definition is more problematic:

[Neoliberalism is] …an ensemble of economic and social policies, forms of governance, and discourses and ideologies that promote individual self-interest, unrestricted flows of capital, deep reductions in the cost of labor, and sharp retrenchment of the public sphere. Neoliberals champion privatization of social goods and withdrawal of government from provision for social welfare on the premise that competitive markets are more effective and efficient.

Who would want “unrestricted flows of capital”? This is how CEOs of Multi Academy Trusts end up being paid untold millions. No one wants “deep reductions in the cost of labor,” do they? Surely it can’t be in anyone’s long-term interest to pay teachers less? And the idea that social goods are transferred in private hands, and that governments should not provide for our social welfare is horrifying. I’m certainly against all that! I’m all for striving mightily to keep tech giants like Apple, Goole and Microsoft out of the classroom, and look at the creeping power of edu-providers like Pearson and GEMS with mounting concern. But does that also mean we should crowd out the little guy? There are some excellent edu-start ups out there (Bedrock Learning, Hegarty Maths, No More Marking and Thinking Reading to name a few) who are deeply motivated by concerns for social justice and doing what they can to help the most disadvantaged of students. Are they all really part of a neoliberal conspiracy? It seems unlikely.

And hang on! I make money out of education. Schools get in touch to ask me to provide training for their staff, and ask me to consult on their policies. Am I one of the baddies? Is everyone who sells goods or services to schools part of the problem? Are you? You might be a secret neoliberal! It’s no good saying you’re not: literally no one confesses to being a neoliberal.

But, concerns about neoliberalism might be aside, this tendency is just the thin end of a particularly nasty wedge. More and more, ordinary folk are calling anyone who disagrees with them ‘far right’, ‘racist’, ‘Nazi’, or any other label to which no right-thinking person would want to be associated. This is the same convoluted logic that allows people to argue that practising yoga contributes to white supremacy. There may, perhaps, be good reason to object to the cultural appropriation of yoga. If so, make your case. But simply calling those who disagree with you white supremacists is lazy, cowardly and unfair. Instead of picking on people who just want to be healthier and more mindful, why not find some actual white supremacists and call them out on what they say and do?

Or what about the sorry case of Claire Kober. The Labour leader of Haringey Council was forced to resign after a campaign of intimidation. She was accused by activists of “social cleansing”, and “pursuing a policy of Lebensraum”. Maybe her policy to involve a private company in the redevelopment and regeneration the borough’s estates and to build 6,500 new homes was wrong, but if so argue against the policy. Instead Kober was branded a Nazi and – apparently – her opponents sang the lyrics to The Police’s I’ll Be Watching You after every council meeting.

As most of us have suddenly and startlingly become aware, there are some people out there with some very nasty ideas about how the world should be run. If you’d asked me a few years ago whether the far-right agenda could every move over into mainstream political debate, I’d have said emphatically no. But I’d have been wrong. I recently read Angela Nagle’s very accessible book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right, and it was a real eye-opener!

I’d never even heard of 4chan before! And, if I thought about it at all, I assumed Tumblr was all about pictures of kittens. Nagle’s thesis is that the rise of the alt-right is, in part, attributable to a reaction against liberal, left-wing social norms, and that, for many of the young men involved in this murky world of trolling, hacking and the distribution of disturbing – often pornographic – memes, the purpose was to be transgressive. To say the unsayable and do the unthinkable. To laugh at what normal sensibilities would have us sympathise with, and to mercilessly mock any public exhibition of sentimentality or political correctness. It’s not too distant from the ways teenage boys mock and insult each other in school. Whenever, a well-intentioned teacher intervenes they’re told it’s “just the bants”. But is it?

This satirical, transgressive veneer provided cover for genuinely shocking and violent misogynist and racist fantasies to increasingly become acceptable, and, at least in the world of 4chan, such attitudes started be become the norm. Without us really noticing, this hidden word become the alt-light, then the alt-right, and then the political mainstream. The dizzying rise to power of a “groping, lecherous, godless presidential candidate” has, in Nagle’s view, nothing to do with traditional conservatism and everything to do with the “hegemony of the culture of non-conformism, self-expression, transgression and irreverence for its own sake.” Or, in other words, the adoption of the principle-free counterculture as the style of the new right.

At the same time, Nagle charts the rise of an equally toxic world view on Tumblr. Rather than directly engaging with, or attacking the murky world of alt-right, the agenda of the online left was, in Nagle’s view, “making increasingly anti-male, anti-white, anti-straight, anti-cis rhetoric normal on the cultural left” and that what were once extreme, fringe ideas have now entered the mainstream. In contrast to the transgressive world of the alt-right, it took an ultra-sensitive stance searching for new things to be offended by, new thought crimes to expose and greater stages from which to signal its virtue.

This particular brand of leftist ideology sets recognition of individuals’ diversity over the more traditional socialist preoccupation with economic inequality. As Nagle says, this trend

…reached its absurd apotheosis with a politics based on minutia and gradations of rapidly proliferating identities, and the emotional injuries of systemic cultural prejudices. Symbolic representative diversity and recognition became its goals, as it admonished transgressors for ‘erasing my identity’ and urged white/straight/male/cis people to ‘listen and believe’. (p. 70)

From there, it’s a mere hop, skip and jump to stop caring about actual politics in favour of a cult of suffering, weakness, vulnerability, and self-flagellation. Everyone’s identity matters except those of the ‘normies’. If you’re white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied or cis then you must ritually ‘check your privilege’. The only way out is to identify as something, anything counter to the mainstream norm. This might all be relatively harmless were it not for the extraordinary viciousness and aggression of identity politics activists.

This is where the behaviour of the alt-right and alt-left become indistinguishable; dissenters need not be convinced, instead they should be destroyed. Anything and anyone is fair game in this cryptonormative war. You win by smearing your opponents as ‘snowflakes’, ‘transphobics’, ‘cry bullies’, ‘racists’, ‘manginas’, ‘Nazis’ and ‘Stalinists’ in an ever-escalating, ever descending war of words.

The result? Actual arguments no longer matter. Facts don’t matter. Truth doesn’t even exist. Instead we have ‘alternative facts’ and inhabit a ‘post-truth’ world in which scientific evidence is just a point of view, no more or less convincing or worthy of respect than any other perspective. Or worse, a world where personal testimonies bearing witness to suffering are afforded greater weight because science and logic are the white, male elite’s tools of oppression. In fact, your scientific evidence and reasoned argument – whatever it is – is wrong because scientific evidence and reasoned argument are neoliberal racism.

To be clear, if you find any of this argument illogical or unconvincing then that’s because you are a bad person. Become a better person and then you will see I’m right.

Viva cryptonormativism!



  1. Catherine Scott February 4, 2018 at 8:41 pm - Reply

    If you truly want to know pain accidentally, as I did, make a perfectly innocuous comment on a thread devoted to those who’ve built their identity around taking anti depressants. One contributor posted that he hoped my children would be killed in a car accident while I was watching.

    People when e-communicating are cut loose from the usual social mores sndcrestraints that apply face to face.

  2. Joe Mulvey February 4, 2018 at 9:40 pm - Reply

    Two useful links on defining “neoliberalism”, from opposite sides of the political divide:
    However, my main problem with this kind of label is that it is used as a substitute for listening to a viewpoint. The question it answers is not, “What are your core beliefs?”, but “What tribe are you in?”, or worse, “What tribe do I perceive you to be in?” There is no room for reacting by saying, “I agree with some of what you say,” or, “I can see that you hold an arguable position, even if I disagree with it.” Which is to say, I agree with your analysis.
    Brave of you to write on this subject, given recent history. Put on your armour, and keep blogging. Some of us enjoy hearing your views, even if you are an entitled, privileged Jordan Peterson-loving neofascist… 🙂

    • David Didau February 4, 2018 at 10:21 pm - Reply

      Thanks Joe

      To be clear, I don’t love Peterson; I find him interesting. A good deal of what he says seems bizarre, but more is on the money.

  3. jamesisaylestonebulldogs February 4, 2018 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    Having the wrong opinion can cost you your job.

  4. englishteacher688 February 4, 2018 at 11:24 pm - Reply

    I suspect that if arguments took place face-to-face, we would be much more polite, constrained as we are by the social umpire. However, online debate is gladiatorial, brutal and sometimes vindictive. The blog debates I read tend to be relatively balanced on the whole and I try to steer clear of the forums that look to be getting too vitriolic. For a measure of just how bad things can get, have a look at the rugby forums on The Guardian. Some people seem to live just for winding others up with their needling and toxic taunts (many of them about nationalistic debates, referendum votes etc. very little to do with sport). Out of interest, have you read The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire? I’ve just been handed it and it seems to pick up on a few point you make above about opinions and how they are presented, defended and attacked.

  5. Rufus Mcneil February 5, 2018 at 12:08 am - Reply

    Great article David. Any time spent with with inputs from a varied group on Facebook or even Pinterest (of all places – that’s Kittens for you) absolutely supports your point. It’s depressing to observe that each side doesn’t even just mishear or deliberately misinterpret the others’ arguments anymore. They just replace it with their own version of what they believe the view is likely to be, in its worst and most ridiculous form, and then rally around that Aunt Sally in righteous fury.

  6. Stan February 5, 2018 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    That you see being the one who was wrong in an argument as something you have to work to get over rather than a bonus where you found out something new might be holding you back.

    As an example your take on lowering labor costs is wrong. Everyone should want this. It only makes sense in the context of some measure of cost per unit output. Take the median result of the student population today and aim to get all students to meet that without raising the cost. You are striving to half the cost of labor for this result. If that is not enough imagine this in the context of any medical improvement. If a new cancer screening test reduces the cost by a factor of ten that is mostly because it is taking less time for someone to process it. Yet it is a good thing.

    • David Didau February 6, 2018 at 9:23 pm - Reply

      I’ve completely failed to understand the point your making here. The first paragraph is opaque and the second see to be arguing that reducing teachers’ salaries is s good thing because the aim of education is hey students to achieve a ‘median result’(?) as cheaply as possible? Can you explain what your trying to say more clearly?

      • Stan February 7, 2018 at 1:52 pm - Reply

        The second point is that reducing the cost of labor doesn’t have to mean reducing salaries. It means reducing the cost of labor per unit output. So if you double your output you have reduced the cost of labor even if you are paying exactly the same amount for it.

        If you are looking at the cost of labor in education then you have to have some measure of output. I picked as an example – the number of students achieving the median result today. So if 50% of the students today achieve some standard of education then if by some improvement (perhaps implementing many of the ideas you describe) you get all the students to achieve this same standard or better you would double your output and the cost of labor per unit output would half.

        You can make the measure of achievement as simple or complex as you want. In my day in high school one metric was a single combined exam result. A number from 0 to 550 that determined university entrance eligibility. If under this system half the students get above 350 today and then you improve things such that all get above 350 you have doubled the output according to this measure. If you do this without paying more then you have halved the cost of labor for what you get from it.

        I am not arguing the merits of a particular metric. It could be the number of students who regard their school days as worthwhile five years after leaving.

        If you measure the output of education as simply the number attending school then for a constant student population yes you have no way to reduce the cost of labor without paying less.

  7. Stan February 5, 2018 at 2:48 pm - Reply

    I saw an interesting response to this blog post on twitter. Someone complaining that you were not being fair to Shreena Gandhi. I have wondered if there is more than tribalism in the left’s poor self criticism. As pointed out the right are explicitly baiting people with their political incorrectness. Perhaps items like Gandhi’s work in the same way for the left. They serve as a way to elicit a response that can then be found wanting. Respond imperfectly a few times and you can then be dismissed forever.

    What is the answer? If you immediately address the grain of truth in the complaint can you get back to the issue you care about? I don’t know the answer so my suggestion is don’t take the bait. Better to wait for a Pinker, Sokal or Heath to focus on the issue of the sometimes sloppy thinking on the left and just block or mute folks that don’t want to think about what they think about.

  8. ad February 6, 2018 at 11:55 pm - Reply

    In case you’re unsure, neoliberalism is generally defined as being a modified form of liberalism tending to favour free-market capitalism

    That sounds like a new name for classical liberalism. After all, if you eliminate all forms of coercion, the only incentives left are rewards – various ways of paying people to do things. And a world in which you get people to do things by paying them sounds very much like free-market capitalism…

    • David Didau February 7, 2018 at 10:55 am - Reply

      You might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment.

      I think the prefix ‘neo’ just means evil.

  9. chestnut February 11, 2018 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    Politics is becoming more and more polarised. It just feels like we are back in the early 80’s. Twitter is not one of my favourite internet outlets precisely because it favours the sound-bite and ill thought out viewpoints. I have recently discovered (I am nearly 60 and female) You tube as a place of 1 – 2 hour long discussions. Thank goodness. I don’t think anyone would describe themselves as neo anything neither neo-liberal nor neo-Marxist. It is a prefix used by others to name call and suggest that anything the other person says is both evil and not worth listening to.

  10. Dav February 11, 2018 at 8:36 pm - Reply

    I don’t know about “neoliberal”, but possibly “neolithic” would be an apt epithet?

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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