Are Social Justice Politics Serious, or Not?
will there ever be a time where we're allowed to treat a large, immensely influential school of politics as a legitimate target of interest and criticism?
Zack Beauchamp on Patrick Deneen’s new book:
Here, Deneen is far from alone. Conservative and center-left elites who panic about “wokeness” and “cancel culture” focus their fire disproportionately on elite institutions: top 20 colleges, the New York Times, prominent artistic institutions, and major book publishers. People respond to what they see in their personal life. It’s one thing to hear about someone getting laid off at a factory in a small town, and another thing altogether for a friend — or you personally — to be denied tenure for believing the wrong things.
This has led to a consistent overstatement of the scope of the problem of “wokeness” and “identity politics.”
Are we still doing this? Really?
Let’s start here. The fact that Zack Beauchamp can derisively refer to others as “center-left” - in fucking Vox! - shows you how weird the dictates of professionalism in media are. If you feed Midjourney the prompt “center-left,” it’ll give you a picture of Beauchamp humping the Vox logo. More to the point, we have this studied and intentional refusal to acknowledge that far-left critics of this discourse exist. In fact, socialists were the OG critics of identity politics; Eric Hobsbawm, Todd Gitlin, Richard Rorty, Adolph Reed - these guys were lobbing bombs at identity politics decades before the first conservative ever uttered the word “woke.” I know this is a lonely corner I’m on, at this point, but that antagonism is exactly what we should expect: identity politics and socialist politics are not incidentally at odds, but are rather inherently and existentially incompatible. The heart of left-wing practice is communitarianism, putting the group before the individual, and the fundamental complaint of identity politics is “hey, what about me?!?” People really don’t want to confront this incompatibility because it’s socially and professionally uncomfortable for them, and most self-identified socialists understand that if you were to force people to choose, you’d end up with an even smaller rump of American socialism than we have today. Perhaps the primary lesson the American left has learned since the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 is that calling people on the right racist is powerless and calling people on the left racist all-powerful.
Still - criticism of identity politics was a far-left practice first, there remains a powerful set of critiques coming from socialist left spaces, and Beauchamp is well aware of that. It’s just not conducive to his own position within media.
Here’s the kind of thing Beauchamp made his bones doing, justifying Obama’s hideously wrongheaded military adventure in Libya for Andrew Sullivan’s blog. There was a lot in that regard, back then, from him; for awhile his beat was being every neocon’s favorite liberal. The Libya debacle sparked a decade-plus-long struggle for power, turned the country into an open-air slave market, and left a vacuum into which ISIS and the remnants of al Qaeda escaped, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that was longer and worse than anything Qaddafi would have come up with. What’s funny is that, in today’s media environment, the fact that he wrote those arguments for Andrew Sullivan is probably more disqualifying than the fact that he endorsed one of the most ruinous military debacles in recent memory. But that’s the point, right? If you want to survive in media today (and Beauchamp is a survivor), then you have to adapt. And one of the core adaptations that almost every liberal in media has made has been to make peace with “wokeness,” de facto if not de jure. Which brings us back to his central complaint.
One thing I’ve been arguing, in advance of my new book, is that it’s a mistake to look at the social justice movement and what’s typically called “woke” or similar as coterminous. My book is about protest movements and their various permutations - the 2020 George Floyd protests are the heart of the book, and there’s a chapter on the uses of riots and political violence, a chapter on the malign influence of nonprofit organizations on such movements, etc. And these issues are separable from the constant complaints about recasting roles with actors of color, a professor getting fired for saying something offensive, or a media figure being flayed alive on Twitter for appearing to break with social justice consensus. The former topic - why did the 2020 moment flare so brightly, then fail so completely? - interests me sufficiently that I wrote a book about it. The latter topic I now find intensely boring.
However. I acknowledge that those tendencies are permanently entangled. And I also know that, boring or not, the politics that Beauchamp dismisses as a distraction are in fact incredibly influential, even as the energy has dissipated in the last three years and the hegemonic social power is increasingly challenged. Social justice politics is the language of institutions; it’s hard to find a single university, nonprofit, or major corporation that doesn’t use social justice language as its default public relations vocabulary. Does that add up to much, materially? Of course not. But then, that’s an indictment of the approach taken by people who embrace those politics, and woke capital is simply a reality. Yes, of course right-wing insanity about “woke” is unhinged, but so what? Why does that fact compel us to pretend that nobody sincerely supports the social justice political project? I find it so strange that people like Beauchamp still default to the “hey, this woke stuff is just a small fringe, who cares?”
Or maybe not strange. Social justice politics is a set of policy positions and moral precepts, like any other political movement, but it’s also a set of discursive tools, and one of its central tools has always been a vociferous rejection of criticism, typically enforced through bringing intense social and professional shunning to bear. Whether the danger is real or perceived, a lot of people remain terribly afraid of appearing to defy this consensus. A lot of mainstream liberals have nursed private doubts about the social justice project for years, but they’ve also seen the potential costs of doing so publicly, so they’re in the rear with the gear. Therefore it’s convenient to do as Beauchamp does and assert the irrelevancy of those politics rather than to affirmatively critique or defend them.
Well: social justice politics aren’t going anywhere. As I said, there’s a policy agenda associated with that movement; some of the specifics I very much support, some I very much oppose. The moral commitments of equality and defense of minority groups I very much support, at least at the level of moral abstraction. And there’s a really ugly counter-movement afoot that I’m entirely opposed to. What I’d like is a social justice movement that drops some of its ridiculous excesses and reflexive illiberalism. That wouldn’t be my own project, and I’m not going to get that, but it would be nice. But there’s no way to get there if we refuse to engage, under the theory that social justice politics just aren’t important or any other. Also, you know, I personally feel in a very visceral and deep place in my heart that being condescended to is so much worse than open antagonism. And I just feel like we’re in this place where people are still terribly afraid of getting canceled and recently spent a year talking about how justice was on the march and nothing would ever be the same and think it’s normal that defense manufacturers refer to “Black bodies” in their marketing materials and at the same time treat social justice politics as the cute little political movement of adolescents. It’s time to get past that. You respect people by taking their politics seriously. So let’s take them seriously.