The "Left" Can't Take a W Because Performative Ironic Cruelty is All It Has
Since I’ve been doing this for so long, I sometimes forget to establish basic elements of my political history and philosophy. My earliest political feelings were vague left-liberal stuff, as is common among adolescents, but by the time I was 19 or so I was studying to be an old-school orthodox Marxist. (I still consider myself an old-school Marxist, minus the teleology.) I was in a number of reading groups from 2000ish-2004ish, studying the sacred texts - Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky and Gramsci and Althusser and Kropotkin and David Harvey and on and on. Eventually I gave up, for a few reasons. The first was that I just wasn’t a good enough student. I looked around me and saw all these guys who could quote chapter and verse of Proudhon or whatever, and though I was diligent and passionate I could never get to that level. Try as I might I could never keep my Grundrisse straight from my “Critique of the Gotha Programme.” And for everything I learned there was another something that, I would be made to understand, I didn’t know. I wanted to be serious, and I knew that to be serious was to be studious. But it wasn’t a race I wanted to run.
I didn’t think much of the finish line, by that point. I knew people (I know people) who just studied Marx like the Yeshivot studying the Talmud, study on top of study and seemingly for no other reason. They were dismissive of all actually-existing left movements and too pure to live. You couldn’t judge them on their actions because they had no action, only theory. When my time in the anti-Iraq war movement was over and I emerged from it, exhausted and spent, it was time to leave the temple for me too. I had had enough of the high priests.
I bring this up to let you know that I don’t want to be in the position I find myself in. More and more lately I look out at what constitutes contemporary American socialism and find it… well, lacking doesn’t begin to cover it. More and more often I complain that people have no idea what socialism entails. (Decommodification, in a word, if you’re curious.) More and more often I see ostensible socialists who think of it as this empty vessel of not-liberalism, whose socialism just is shitty Twitter jokes and broad assumptions about a postcapitalist world where they can just make webcomics or play Minecraft or whatever the fuck else it is they do. I see socialists become (God, forgive me) “Dimes Square” types, pivoting effortlessly from socialism to this boutique fake-Catholic “traditionalism,” effortlessly because there wasn’t any core to that socialism in the first place. (I’ve got some reactionary friends but they’re the real deal, thank you.) The face of online socialism is some embittered grad school dropout doing irony at you, ladling out performative disaffection, making sure you all know that everything is expected by them, nothing exciting or surprising or scary. Their language is sarcasm, sarcasm, sarcasm, lol lol lol lib capitalism lib lib lib lol lol lol.
I am increasingly unsure if any of the post-Occupy flowering of media and popular attention in socialism has really meant anything or been a genuinely positive development for the effort to secure a more humane economic and political system. And I mentioned my years in the Marxist temple because this is precisely the position I never wanted to be in. I never wanted to be the purist clucking his tongue at actually-existing socialists. Well, in my activism life I know plenty of dedicated and perceptive socialists who have stayed human and who don’t use socialism simply as an excuse to spend all day, every day dunking on people. There are surely plenty of good people online as well. But I could hardly have less faith in the average self-identified socialist in American public life, anymore, because that person has insults for days but no plan. And I hate being in this position. I really, truly do.
So, this piece by Sam Adler-Bell about how the left “can’t take a W.” I don’t know that the actual left can’t take a W. But the “left,” what passes for the left, can’t take a W because it’s not a political movement. It’s not a sincere attempt to positively change the world. Instead, the “left” is a) a social culture of frustrated post-college urbanites who know little about left theory or practice and who use left politics as just another way to wage petty little wars of social status with their peers, and b) a set of ambitious entrepreneurs who milk that community for all its worth in the form of podcasts, newsletters, and Twitch. The professionals sell their precious disaffection and their endlessly-workshopped little bon mots and (credit where due) wring out income streams like they’re squeezing water out of a towel. And what they know is that their audience of email-job rageaholics, that army of frustrated would-be filmmakers/musicians/social media stars, doesn’t demand constructive insight but rather anger, formless and pointless and directionless, that then gets packaged as anticapitalist politics. The “left” can’t take a W because positivity is inimical to everything that defines their culture.
Adler-Bell’s too rosy about the Democrats. Fossil fuel companies celebrated the Inflation Reduction Act, which by the way seems unlikely to actually help much with inflation. Student debt relief will not survive legal challenge in the court system Republicans have meticulously built for decades, and anyway it does nothing to address the structural problems with college funding. And in general the Democrats remain a Clintonite party, a triangulating and cowardly party, even as I acknowledge that their policy platform has genuinely moved to the left in my adult life. The country also happens to be all kinds of fucked up. Anger is a natural, and a correct, response to the state of things.
But joy cometh in the morning. It must; socialism is at its heart an ethic of radical optimism, a promise that the present makes to the future. There’s no way to do this without allowing for the possibility of satisfaction and of victory. The corrosive, knowing, unearned sarcasm that has become core to left discourse has turned American socialism into something I don’t recognize. Maybe the people who are derisive of recent Democratic accomplishments are right to be so. Betting on the Democrats is a good way to go broke. But the insatiable anger and endless sarcasm that haunt online socialism… something’s got to give.