This will be a short week due to Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday.
I talk to a lot of young lefties. This was a constant experience in the 11 years I taught college freshmen, which ended in the spring of 2020. Often it’s in connection with my IRL housing activism. Sometimes it’s those who present as conventional DSA or social justice types and email me in the spirit of “I could never say this publicly, but….” Some see themselves in my lineage as old school/class-first/traditionalist/civil libertarian leftists, though I’m often amused at the assumptions they make about my politics. Many have politics I just find inscrutable, as is common with young adults. Most, I imagine, will end up like the vast majority of today’s screaming social justice set, in that in 10 or 15 years they’ll just be busy little Democrat soccer parents, people who vote blue and put some sort of sign up in their lawn but who are basically apolitical in every meaningful sense. Remember always that the 25 year old who’s screaming at you about Black bodies today probably won’t be a Republican in ten years, but more likely will someday be an actuary or a dentist and serve on the PTA.
What unites just about all of the hundreds of young left-leaning people I’ve talked to in the past five years or so is that they have essentially given up on opposing the interests of capital. They don’t realize they have, but they have. They don’t even conceive of the left’s one true traditional enemy, the heart of our animus and the source of our problems, as a political actor at all. They might have some vestigial instincts that corporations are bad or that investment banks are particularly bad, but they have no particular passion in that direction and no policy preferences beyond a vague desire to raise taxes. But why would they feel visceral antagonism towards the moneyed and corporations? Whose example would they be following? How often does the liberal intelligentsia talk about the depravations of the wealthy and the corporations they run, relative to the pathetic fringe of the ultra-right? When the newsmedia wants to represent a conservative threat today, it’s always some yokel with a 4chan account and an AR-15. When young left-of-center people conceive of a right-wing enemy, all they think of are “the fash.” They think Charlottesville and Kyle Rittenhouse epitomize the contemporary American political struggle. That those are utterly remote threats to the vast majority of poor and oppressed peoples in the United States today doesn’t seem to occur to them.
Again, we have armies of people who insist they’re willing to take part in meaningless street combat with whatever right-wing losers show up, and take photos for social media the entire time, but we have far fewer who will actually show up week after week to do the slow and laborious work of canvassing, phone banking, tabling, handing out leaflets, and otherwise slowly changing minds. If it doesn’t feel cool, today’s left want do it. The only politics they desire is the politics of catharsis.
Occupy Wall Street’s deficiencies have been chronicled by many, including me, in the past decade. Even its signature idea, “We Are the 99%,” has its flaws. Most obviously it obscures meaningful class differences within the 99% that are arguably more consequential for day-to-day life than the 99%-1% split. I argued in my book, as did Richard Reeves in Dream Hoarders, the top 20% - an income range in which I myself reside - are in fact pulling away from the 80% to a degree that has profoundly deleterious effects on our society. And this matters beyond mere class war symbolism, as what too many left-of-center people don’t want to admit (and Democrats definitely don’t want to acknowledge) is that to pay for the kind of social safety net we want, people like me have to pay higher taxes too. Too much progressive messaging suggests that we can just tax Elon Musk and be done with it. But it will take a lot more, and the trouble is that liberalism’s takeover by an educated elite is now complete, and so the people who would fight for these tax increases are the people who would receive them, and so unsurprisingly it’s not happening. Either way, the 99% vs. the 1% obscures just how far much the upper middle class is pulling ahead as well, and makes the political task before us seem far easier than it is. So that’s bad.
And yet “we are the 99%,” frequently attributed to the late David Graeber, was elegant, direct, and fundamentally class-oriented; it stressed that people of all colors and kinds were united by our mutual exploitation by the ruling classes of society. It insisted that we were all in this together and that economic class, money, the haves and the have nots, were the basic poles of American political life. Occupy stressed a rhetoric of togetherness and the need for unity to fight against the forces of wealth and privilege. They needed to, as it really will take all kinds of people to defeat the guys in suits who don’t give a shit about BLM or what pronouns to use as long as they can extract every penny they can from ordinary people. The moneyed and the powerful have the money and the power. All the left has is people power, the potential of great masses to come together and, despite their demographic and cultural and lifestyle differences, recognize their shared self-interest and demand change.
And, well… how’s that going now? All contemporary liberals and leftists want to do is to chop that 99% up into smaller and smaller chunks, insisting to many of them that their problems aren’t really problems, setting up a hierarchy of suffering that is as inhospitable to real solidarity as I can imagine. There’s almost zero interest in a politics oriented around opposition to the kleptocracy that runs our system and steadily takes from those with too little and gives to those with too much. Yet that’s the biggest source of real human suffering in this country, need, unnecessary economic need that could be ameliorated by more equitably spreading the wealth. This is deeply related to the identity-based injustices that liberals are now fixated on seemingly to the exclusion of all others. I promise you, as desperately as we need policing and criminal justice reform in this country, poverty hurts more Black people more deeply every day than police do, by a country mile. And yet even the racial justice conversation has little time for questioning the basic distribution of money and power in our society. It’s far more invested in what I’ve called the Rainbow Oligarchy, diversifying our autocratic elite rather than tearing it down.
The lack of any clear class consciousness permeates the left (or “left”) conversation and its priorities. I think about the wearying discourse of deplatforming. “Deplatforming WORKS!” they snidely exclaim, not seeming to realize that, for example, it was conservatives who effectively canceled Milo Yappadapolous, not leftists, or that Alex Jones still has an audience of millions and is a very wealthy man. But those points are less important than recognizing that their targets are all fundamentally irrelevant media personalities, and that they fixate on them precisely because they can’t deplatform the forces that actually hurt poor people in this country. Richard Spencer lost his platform? Damn! Let freedom ring! I mean, he’s always been an utterly irrelevant figure, and every building in the financial district in Manhattan is filled with anonymous figures who do more damage to vulnerable people than Spencer will ever do in his life and then retreat to their tony Boerum Hill townhouses, but sure. We got ‘em, guys, mission accomplish. All 500 of Spencer’s followers have been defeated.
This is what happens when the left gives up on its core commitment to restructuring society at the economic level. You get caught up in this politics of celebrity, where what matters to your movement is the people who most defy its cultural leanings, rather than the structures of money and power that condition human lives.
This position is not antagonistic to concern for racism or sexism or homophobia. Only a diverse coalition of poor and working class and middle class people can succeed in ending both individual oppressions and the collective one, and we can so long as we aren’t telling some that their problems aren’t important. Look at Wells Fargo, almost a caricature of capitalism’s evils. All large banks are exploitative; the overdraft fee is an idea born from evil. But Wells Fargo has a history of predatory behavior towards Black people, deliberately steering Black people into worse borrowing terms and charging higher rates based on race, at a time when they were “the largest residential home mortgage originator in the United States,” according to the feds. So that’s racist and bad. They paid a settlement out, no doubt far less than they made from their predatory practices, and promised they’d reformed. Then this happened:
Fist up, indeed.
Then some Wells Fargo apparatchik said the Black talent pool is limited - in 2020, inconveniently for them. There was a big outcry, which was appropriate. So they did the regular ablutions and apologized, which was also appropriate. And then the moment passed. Nothing really changed. Yet every day, that bank and their industry and sundry others are still gradually making the rich richer and the poor poorer, including Black people. That’s baked into the system as much as racism is. Yet we haven’t seen any movement to abolish large banks or create a socialized finance system or start sovereign wealth funds or anything similar, in the same rhetorical environment in which people sincerely and angrily demanded that we abolish the police. And I don’t understand it, that disconnect, that asymmetry in demands for equally big problems. Or maybe I do. Maybe
People have given up. It feels impossible so they just don’t try.
Identity politics has so effectively carved up the left’s traditional constituencies into little grievance fiefdoms that there simply isn’t room for the solidarity that’s necessary to wage this fight. We’re talking about a political movement where, if you say “hey what about this group of poor people over here, can we help them?” a significant member of the liberal party will accuse you of “centering” white people or whatever the fuck, instead of saying yeah let’s help all poor people. And maybe that just can’t be a mass movement, a real movement, a winning movement.
Liberals and the “left” really just want to diversify a rotten system; as long as there’s enough Black and trans faces in Harvard and Goldman Sachs and the Stonecutters they don’t give a fuck.
Take your pick, one or all. And look, if you doubt me, try this. Start a Facebook account and follow a ton of those terrible liberal pages, you know the ones. Make a Twitter account and follow dozens of liberals. Follow hundreds. Go on Instagram and follow as many “social justice” accounts you can. You will be amazed at how little they talk about socioeconomic inequality as such or poverty as such or hunger and need and want as such. They will do so as intensifiers to complain about the usual identity oppressions, but the economic issues at the core of all of it? Most couldn’t care less.
Capital is adaptable. Capital is savvy. It’s a mistake to think that capital is conservative; capital has no attachment to conserving or progressing. Capital just wants to accumulate more money and more power and more stuff. I know that I’ve dated myself with the Gordon Gekko reference in the photo above, but just look at the guy in the picture and you’ll know everything you need to know: the class of human beings who are motivated only by the remorseless accumulation of more wealth and power. They are not ideologues; ideologues believe in things. But they are the big lift, they are the high hard wall, they are the dragon of American politics.
And you might be surprised about how they think of themselves. Most of them aren’t motivated by conservative cultural issues at all. These days, many of them, maybe a majority of them, are Obama Democrats. And this is what the left-of-center has to wrap its mind around: the biggest impediment to BlackLivesMatter is people who don’t personally oppose BlackLivesMatter. The biggest impediment to BlackLivesMatter and all manner of other liberal social movements is people who are indifferent to them, who wouldn’t get caught dead with a Confederate flag but who do more to set back Black people than any redneck ever has in real, material terms. And our only political commitments are not to building a better world but convincing people that this one is bad, not redistribution and social change but the 1619 Project, guilt porn for miserable people, feel-bad fodder for a privileged social caste that thinks feeling bad is the height of moral behavior. That’s what we got.
Tear down the 1%? Honey, we’re not even going to try.