It's All Grift, It's All Brands
One of the more unfortunate developments in casual political culture in the last decade has been the rise of “grifter” as a catch-all term to deride anyone whose political engagement results in financial success. Who is grifting and who merely has a job is 100% a product of the preexisting attitudes of the person lobbing the insult. Worse, it misunderstands the basic operation of capitalism as some sort of notable transgression of a pure writing-for-money exchange. No such default exists. If you take money, you are “grifting.” There’s no alternative.
Carl Beijer has published an odd piece skirting around these issues. He does not quite accuse anyone of insincerity based on greed, but he certainly is annoyed by the rise of the “a plague on both your houses” niche in political media, of which I am a part. His point is that heterodoxy, or having a political identity that stands outside of conventional left-right binaries, is popular, and thus those who have styled themselves as heterodox thinkers aren’t bold truth-tellers but merely self-interested market actors. What I can’t quite divine is if Beijer is complaining only that people who have conventional politics say they’re unconventional, a sin merely of perspective, or if he’s saying that it would be good for people to be genuinely outside of the American ideological consensus, a sin of substance. I wonder about the latter because Beijer is a socialist, and in America in 2022 socialism is about as challenging to elite opinion as a glass of milk.
This may seem obvious, but again, listen to how our “heterodox” pundits talk about it. On one hand, they routinely frame literally any departure from the party line, for whatever reason, as some kind of rare heroic act that sets one apart from the zombies marching in “lockstep” under the party banner. On the other, there’s the corollary: if you want to prove that you’re a heterodox thinker, rather than an ordinary partisan, all you have to do is point out some issues where you disagree with the party line.
I find this all pretty muddled.
The central error in Beijer’s piece, and it seems to be quite obvious to me, is that he seeks to dispute claims of heterodoxy through reference to voter preferences and polling data. But orthodoxy, and thus heterodoxy, are not crowdsourced; they’re determined by elites. To say “you say you’re heterodox, but much of the crowd agrees with you” is a non sequitur. Orthodoxy and popularity are entirely orthogonal to each other. Indeed, a glaring problem for the American left-of-center and the Democrats is that liberal orthodoxy is on certain issues out of step with not just the country writ large but with the Democratic base. (As I recently pointed out, immigration is a good example of this dynamic.) And I find Beijer’s tying questions of orthodoxy to popularity very odd because it is precisely the ability to define orthodoxy in a way that defies popular sentiment that characterizes the political elite. That is their privilege. Most self-styled orthodox thinkers will tell you flat out that they’re not defying the will of the people but rather the will of the tastemakers who set the agenda against the will of the people. That’s key to the brand! So reference to polling just isn’t relevant.
If you’re a professional writer (or podcaster or whatever) the risk of heterodoxy lies not in offending the masses but in upsetting the elites that control the levers of success in creative fields. Sure, being heterodox might put you in line with large masses of people, but those people don’t decide who gets to write for The New York Times. They don’t do the hiring for Gimlet Media. They don’t hand out hefty advances at Big Five publishers. Not to be repetitious, but what makes the liberal elite the liberal elite is their control over the professional apparatus of the ideas industry. It’s to them that the creative class bends the knee, and that’s why heterodoxy can be professionally risky even if it aligns with broader sentiment within the public. It can also be very professionally remunerative, if you’re talented and lucky. But it’s a high-risk, high-reward move in a fiercely competitive market. In other words, while you are free to find such branding annoying, it’s not in any sense a unique character defect. It’s just part of the work of getting ahead in capitalism, same as for anyone else.
(I will remind you that the refusal to engage in branding is a time-honored brand for writers. Like the punks in the 1970s who developed a very identifiable style due to a desire to have no style.)
The important point is that there simply is no such thing as a neutral or uncorrupted relationship between your politics and that which sells in publishing and media. Sure, yes, I have made some money thanks to the fact that a lot of people are looking for alternatives beyond the conventional liberal and conservative frames. I’ve also written myself out of immense amounts of professional opportunity in doing just the same. These are relevant professional concerns, but they have nothing to do with seeing my writing as a “rare heroic act.” It’s just a question of which master you serve. Once you take money for your work, it’s all grift. There is no pure professional creative class. And any socialist should be the first person to understand that.
I don’t believe I’ve ever called myself heterodox and firmly believe that I’m just an orthodox leftist whose sense of orthodoxy was set in an earlier era. I do occasionally describe myself as a dissident because my politics are out of step with who sets the pace of contemporary American socialism, which is to say college-educated Brooklynite writers and podcasters. Socialism is such a small and uninfluential niche in contemporary partisan politics (as opposed to elite political discussion) that I’m not even sure that you could pull data to understand my place relevant to the median socialist. Either way, I hope you’ll understand that I can’t go through life constantly wheeling around to adjust my relative position to whatever constitutes the socialist mainstream, for fear of being heterodox and thus a grifter. I can only maintain my own corner, discursive and political and financial, as I have always done, as I will continue to do.
I imagine that Beijer’s financial backers at his newsletter are the same people who keep those socialist podcasts and websites afloat. And god bless! But why should Beijer appealing to that audience be any more virtuous or pure than, say, Jesse Singal appealing to his? Beijer demonstrates that there’s a large potential audience for selling heterodoxy, but… so what? I am unaware of any anticapitalist philosophy that says that it’s better to sell to a smaller market than a larger one. I am however aware of the time-honored nostrum that there is no ethical living under capitalism. I tell this to young lefties all the time: you can choose to be an anticapitalist, but you’re still compelled to be a capitalist. Beijer calls heterodoxy a brand, but of course socialism is a brand too, one that has been a growing concern in the past decade. I suspect the root of the complaint is that the socialist consumer base is smaller than that of certain schools of self-defined heterodoxy. But that’s the market, baby.
And this points to one of my very least favorite tics within contemporary socialism: people complaining about who and what gets rewarded in the market system but dressing it up as a complaint about markets themselves. When Bari Weiss rakes it in, it proves the illegitimacy of the system, but when Jacobin moves units, it’s a just act of good work being rewarded. Beijer or whoever else is fully free to find it annoying when Glenn Greenwald makes money and pleasing when a socialist podcast does. But that’s simply a restatement of his own politics; there is no underlying ethical difference between the two. We’re all running on the same wheel.