November 20, 2023 - 11:50am

The Omnicause has claimed another single-issue group. The climate change campaigners Just Stop Oil organised a sit-in protest at Waterloo Station on Saturday — not in itself surprising, except that it wasn’t about oil at all, but instead a ceasefire in Gaza. 

What does Palestine have to do with climate change? Nor is Just Stop Oil the only such case: a great many other apparently unrelated campaigns, such as the feminist domestic violence campaign Sisters Uncut, have recently abandoned whatever they were focusing on and erupted onto the streets in support of the Omnicause.

I say “Omnicause” rather than “Palestine” because while part of London’s recent street gaiety is clearly provided by those Islamists and their sympathisers, for whom the conflict in Gaza is a crucial Muslim political and religious cause, it takes more than Britain’s Islamists to provide the sheer number now clambering over war memorials and posing for selfies with the police. And it’s equally clear that much of the turnout that isn’t Islamists and their fellow travellers is drawn, by and large, from the same coalition that turned out for the BLM riots during Covid. (Indeed, one of the protesters interviewed recently by UnHerd said as much.)

The origin story of the Omnicause that impels their presence, as it did for BLM before, lies back in the middle decades of the 20th century, when the postwar Left abandoned the prospect of proletarian revolution in the increasingly affluent West for a new focus. In the 1960s Herbert Marcuse argued for “abolition” of the modern, wealthy “pseudo-democracy”: an order that, in his view, employed “repressive tolerance” to neuter potentially revolutionary subjects, then pacified them with soporific affluence and thus co-opted the working class as adherents of the regime. 

The only way out of this system of capitalist control, Marcuse claimed, was a new revolutionary coalition drawn from the elite and the margins: a cadre of intellectuals, aided by “the substratum of outcasts and outsiders” such as racial and sexual minorities and the economic underclass. These new radicals would enact an extra-democratic revolution which, he thought, should be pursued through any means necessary: “I believe that there is a ‘natural right’ of resistance for oppressed and overpowered minorities to use extralegal means if the legal ones have proved to be inadequate”. 

Subsequent generations of American progressive activists have developed Marcuse’s post-democratic playbook, as well as an elaborate body of theory on the coalition’s marginalised groups. Perhaps no buzzword captures the latter more completely than the doctrine of “intersectionality”, first set out in 1989 by the critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw but since popularised via a trillion Tumblrs, pop-feminist articles and infographics

Crenshaw argued, in brief, that oppressed identities can overlap and serve as multipliers: the more axes on which you’re a minority, the more oppressed you are. In its pop form, this worldview cashes out as two central beliefs: firstly, that oppressed identities confer a kind of special status and knowledge, and arrange victims in a kind of hierarchy — those who speak for or about identities they don’t possess are thus enjoined to “stay in your lane”.

And secondly, that every form of oppression intersects with and hence must be tackled alongside every other form — meaning that believers must stay in their lanes but are also obliged to “stand with” the oppressed everywhere all the time. It is this contradictory but all-consuming outlook that turns seemingly disparate campaigns into an Omnicause. 

It is never wholly clear why one instance of oppression should attain sacred status within the Omnicause, while others — the abduction and rape of women in war, for example — should be swept aside. For those with an instinct for seeking personal power amid the fog and chaos of conflict or revolution, this is no doubt a feature, rather than a bug. Regardless, whether their day-to-day focus is climate or domestic violence or something else, Omnicause revolutionaries are obliged to turn out for events designated by consensus as particularly deserving. 

Palestinians have attained this status: as a group, they tick a great many intersectional victim boxes, while Omnicause adherents have long viewed Israel’s behaviour as a metonym for American oppression, both internally (racism, slavery) and externally (global imperial hegemony). As a cause, Gaza has come to represent the intersectional, omnipresent repressive order against which Marcuse encouraged his radical coalition to struggle by any means necessary.

Between the conflict’s totemic status for the Omnicause and its religious significance for Islamists, then, we should not be surprised by the scale of public disturbance. Or, indeed, the abrupt mobilisation of every seemingly disparate single-issue groupuscule under an unsettlingly univocal banner.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.