The Left Has Never Stood for No Rules or Expectations on Personal Behavior
we've really gotten ourselves into a weird ass place
The woman whose account appears at the top of this picture started a Twitter storm, somehow, by publicly wishing that she could take her child onto the subway without exposing them to secondhand smoke. She was beset by a certain online species of ostensible leftist who is against ever trying to enforce any kind of rule, anywhere, ever. See, rules are the hand of oppression, or something, and since most of society’s rules are meant to be enforced by the police, trying to enforce them (merely wishing that they be enforced) is an endorsement of the police and their violence….
I find this attitude has become inescapable. It’s not just the attitude that the enforcement of societal rules and norms is bad, but that this is the default assumption of all right-thinking people - it’s not just a left-wing perspective but the left-wing perspective. Like so much else in contemporary left-of-center discourse, it demonstrates the total ideological poverty we’re working with. Nobody has read anything, so nobody knows anything, so you’re constantly getting yelled at by self-described radicals who have no solid footing in any systematic approach to left politics at all. Like I said before, we’re living in definitional collapse; the struggle right now is not merely that socialism can’t win but that so many self-described socialists have no deeper ideological moorings than whatever they’ve absorbed from Tumblr and “breadtube.” They think that to be a socialist means to disdain all rules because there is no substance to their socialism at all.
Chris Hayes considered the subway smoking problem last year.
Conceptually, I don’t think these problems are hard at all: the left, the socialist left, has never advocated for a system in which there are literally no expectations on personal behavior. It’s quite bizarre to suggest that this was ever a thing! Only certain extreme forms of anarchism have ever implied that society should have no rules. Go back through the history of socialist theorists and number all of the ones who believed that there should be no laws and no police to enforce them. You won’t find many! Instead you’ll find people who believed in the need for both laws that govern human behavior and constabulary forces to enforce those laws. That’s the solution to the conundrum, my friends - you have rules and you have police that enforce those rules. The belief, and the hope, is that a socialist society is one with far less need for aggressive policing, thanks to far greater economic equality, and maybe someday, after the end of material need, we can consider a policeless society. But not having any social rules or people who enforce those rules is not a socialist concept and never has been. What I would ask Chris Hayes and people like him is… what is the leftist tradition that you’re drawing from that implies that there should be no enforcement of behavioral norms? What thinker? What book? What philosophy? Or, could it be that you’ve developed this totally substance-free approach to basic order because you’ve been habituated to talking this way through exposure to people on social media who know nothing about anything in particular?
Of course, there’s big problems with American policing. Very big problems indeed. So what we do is reform policing. (I address this at length in my next book, coming this fall from Simon & Schuster.) Alternatively, if you’re really committed to this “no rules, no enforcement” thing, you become an anarchist of a very particular stripe - most versions of anarchism have both rules and enforcement mechanisms for them - and you and your compatriots can try to change the system. All twelve of you. In the house your wealthy parents bought for you.
Is there some tradition of radical critiques of police and prisons in left history? Sure. Are there arguments for radically non-normative approaches to community? There’s a few. But, first, these arguments have substance that today’s version conspicuously lacks. This was one of the very weird things about the period where every milquetoast liberal you know was suddenly braying to defund the police, the utter lack of any grounding in theory or research at all. You’d ask, “whose approach to defunding the police are you talking about?” And there would be no answer because the real answer was “whoever’s Facebook status I was last reading.” Second, those arguments have been far from the norm in socialist spaces, and especially in the Soviet tradition, again being much more likely to appear in anarchist spaces than socialist ones. (Unfortunately, when the intellectual foundations of left spaces collapse, so too does the socialist/anarchist distinction.) Third, and most importantly, I find those arguments deeply unconvincing. Including the newer ones; for example, Alex Vitale’s anti-policing book and Angela Davis’s prison abolition book are both noble efforts that conspicuously fail to advance a remotely plausible vision of the future.
The obvious culprit here is the “defund the police” hangover, a zombie policy proposal that no one ever thought was really possible but which we just absolutely cannot shake. It’s stuck on left discourse like a fucking barnacle. The other thing is the left’s continuing problem with low-information voices, people who only recently converted to radical politics but who have knowledge of neither left history nor theory. Which is always fine, as long as you don’t talk like you’re an infinitely wise being who knows everything and has been doing this forever. It’s a meta-problem that dogs the left generally - so many new converts who act as if they have nothing whatsoever to learn. We continue to suffer from the fact that, in the last six or seven years or so, a lot of people who were apolitical or just ordinary Democrats have adopted a loud but vague left-of-liberal politics, and because of the incentives inherent to social media, they speak with total confidence about matters of doctrine in a maximalist rhetorical style. Indeed, many of them make up for the fact that they’ve done none of the reading by just speaking with greater volume and scorn. And so when defunding the police was rattling around left spaces, they had no broader conception of socialist politics with which to consider it, and it became their conception of law and order issues in left politics. Thus today’s lumpen anarchism.
Anarchism isn’t all bad. My brother is a very particular kind of anarchist. But, number one, his is a deeply informed, thoughtful, contingent form of anarchism, and two, he knows what his politics are and aren’t. This backdoor anarchism that a lot of people have fallen into has no content. I understand: people don’t want to be elitists, don’t want to gatekeep, and don’t feel like they have the background knowledge to police anyone else anyway. I also understand that socialism just needs warm bodies, that we have to have converts if we’re ever going to make any kind of inroads into real power. But at this point, a dozen years after Occupy and seven years since Bernie’s peak, I feel confident in saying that the influx of people into socialism who had no interest in doing the work to understand socialism has become an albatross. We’re suffering from a profound information deficit and it’s impeding our growth. I genuinely feel that the recruiting efforts of the past decade-plus have proven to be a net negative. What’s the value of an army of new self-described socialists who can’t be bothered to do little things like “have a coherent vision of change and how to achieve it”?
For the record: it’s hard to imagine a perspective less conducive to electoral success than “no one can ever want the rules enforced.” We desperately need to attract the support of normies, and normies don’t think that the most basic functions of democratic governance should be abandoned. True blue New York City elected Eric Adams as mayor for a reason. And we risk paving the way for another Giuliani if we don’t take seriously our responsibility to contribute to public order, if we don’t show ordinary citizens that we can make public spaces safe and healthy. Saying so isn’t a break from the social tradition. It is the socialist tradition! (Did the USSR have unusually low levels of police or policing? No.) The heart of the left is communitarianism, putting the good of the many first. And you can’t have communitarian outcomes if you’ve abandoned the idea that we should ever be able to enforce any communal standards for behavior. I have no idea how anything that I’m saying could be controversial, but it no doubt will be. Because we’ve found ourselves in this awful cul de sac of intellectual bankruptcy.
I work in public transit and one of the most common complaints of riders, after missed trips and insufficient service, are safety and anti-social behavior. I lived in Atlanta for 10 years and one of the features of their transit system is an app where you could report anonymously to the transit police (a lot of agencies have this). I forgot why, but I was in a reddit discussion talking about how well it seemed to work and told the story of two teenagers playing loud music on a packed train and refused twice to turn it off. About two stations later, transit police walked on and escorted the teens off the train and hopefully they just got a lecture about why they shouldn't do that. After recounting this story. I was immediately branded as a racist (even though I never mentioned race and I'm mixed race myself) and endangering the lives of the teens and other platitudes like "don't start shit, there won't be shit", which I found to be extremely anti-social and corrosive to society. I then explained that I just witnessed it, I didn't report it, that everyone from the teens, to the women who asked them to turn it down, to the cops, were all the same race, at which point they said I was making that up. To relate it back to this story, there seems to be this growing sentiment on a part of the left that you're a "Karen" or busybody if you see anti-social behavior and want it to stop. It's as if working class people wanting to ride home in peace after a long day at work is a bourgeoise or WASPy luxury.
The skyrocketing amount of antisocial behavior in public spaces makes me feel like I'm losing my mind. I do not have a car and have to take the train in Minneapolis most days and it's a mess. A woman was beaten within an inch of her life in the middle of the day on a train platform in the middle of the day on Monday.
People are completely unable to admit that they were wrong on the merits about the "no rules" thing. It's not working. Things were not like this ten years ago. We stopped enforcing the rules and conditions deteriorated, badly. It preceded the pandemic. You started letting people smoke meth on the train, you started letting kids throw chairs at teachers, you started letting people blow red lights, you started letting people carry trash bags of merchandise out of stores, and now this is what things are like. This is not complicated. It doesn't need to be unpacked by a six month series of public meetings organized by $1,000 an hour consultants that produce a 50 page PDF recommending another series of meetings. Jesus! Christ!