There is a particular kind of left position, a habitus that is sociologically and emotionally local to intellectuals, that amounts in its way to a particular kind of anti-politics machine. It’s a perspective that ends up with its nose pressed against the glass, looking in at actually-existing political struggles with a mixture of regret, desire and resignation. Inasmuch as there is any hope of a mass movement in a leftward direction in the United States, Western Europe or anywhere else on the planet, electoral or otherwise, I think it’s a loop to break, a trap to escape. Maybe this is a good time for that to happen.
Just one small example: Adam Kotsko on whether the Internet has made things worse. It’s a short piece, and consciously intended as a provocation, as much of his writing is, and full of careful qualifiers and acknowledgements to boot. But I think it’s a snapshot of this particular set of discursive moves that I am thinking of as a trap, moves that are more serious and more of a leaden weight in hands other than Kotsko’s. And to be sure, in an echo of the point I’m about to critique, this is not a new problem: to some extent this is a continuous pattern that stretches back deep into the history of Western Marxism and postmodernism.
Move #1: Things are worse now. But they were always worse.
Kotsko says this about the Internet. It seems worse but it’s also just the same. Amazon is just the Sears catalogue in a new form. Whatever is bad about the Internet is an extension, maybe an intensification, of what was systematically bad and corrupt about liberalism, modernity, capitalism, and so on. It’s neoliberal turtles all the way down. It’s not worse than a prior culture and it’s not better than a prior culture. (Kotsko has gone on to say something of the same about Trump: he seems worse but he’s just the same. The worst has already happened. But the worst is still happening.)
I noted over a decade ago the way that this move handicapped some forms of left response to the Bush Administration after 9/11. For the three decades before 9/11, especially during the Cold War, many left intellectuals in the West practiced a kind of High Chomskyianism when it came to analyzing the role of the United States in the world, viewing the United States as an imperial actor that sanctified torture, promoted illiberalism and authoritarianism, acted only for base and corrupt motives. Which meant in some sense that the post-9/11 actions of the Bush Administration were only more of the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. But many left intellectuals wanted to frame those actions as a new kind of threat, as a break or betrayal of the old order. Which required saying that there was a difference between Bush’s unilateralism and open sanction of violent imperial action and the United States during the Cold War and the 1990s and that the difference was between something better and something worse. Not between something ideal and something awful, mind you: just substantively or structurally better and substantively or structurally worse.
This same loop pops up sometimes in discussions of the politics of income inequality. To argue that income inequality is so much worse today in the United States almost inevitably requires seeing the rise of the middle-class in postwar America as a vastly preferable alternative to our present neoliberal circumstances. But that middle-class was dominated by white straight men and organized around nuclear-family domesticity, which no progressive wants to see as a preferable past.
It’s a cycle visible in the structure of Howard Zinn’s famous account of American history: in almost all of Zinn’s chapters, the marginalized and the masses rise in reaction to oppression, briefly achieve some success, and then are crushed by dominant elites, again and again and again, with nothing ever really changing.
It’s not as if any of these negative views of the past are outright incorrect. The U.S. in the Cold War frequently behaved in an illiberal, undemocratic and imperial fashion, particularly in the 1980s. Middle-class life in the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by white, straight men. The problems of culture and economy that we identify with the Internet are not without predicate or precedent. But there is a difference between equivalence (“worse now, worse then”) and seeing the present as worse (or better) in some highly particular or specific way. Because the latter actually gives us something to advocate for. “Torture is bad, and because it’s bad, it is so very very bad to be trying to legitimate or legalize it.” “A security state that spies on its own people and subverts democracy is bad, and because it’s bad, it’s so much worse when it is extended and empowered by law and technology.”
When everything has always been worst, it is fairly hard to mobilize others–or even oneself–in the present. Because nothing is really any different now. It is in a funny kind of way a close pairing to the ahistoricism of some neoliberalism: that the system is the system is the system. That nothing ever really changes dramatically, that there have been in the lives and times that matter no real cleavages or breaks.
Move #2: No specific thing is good now, because the whole system is bad.
In Kotsko’s piece on the Internet, this adds up to saying that there is no single thing, no site or practice or resource, which stands as relatively better (or even meaningfully different) apart from the general badness of the Internet. Totality stands always against particularity, system stands against any of its nodes. Wikipedia is not better than Amazon, not really: they’re all connected. Relatively flat hierarchies of access to online publication or speech are not meaningful because elsewhere writers and artists are being paid nothing.
This is an even more dispiriting evacuation of any political possibility, because it moves pre-emptively against any specific project of political making, or any specific declaration of affinity or affection for a specific reform, for any institution, for any locality. Sure, something that exists already or that could exist might seem admirable or useful or generative, but what does it matter?
Move #3: It’s not fair to ask people how to get from here to a totalizing transformation of the systems we live under, because this is just a strategy used to belittle particular reforms or strategies in the present.
I find the sometimes-simultaneity of #2 and #3 the most frustrating of all the positions I see taken up by left intellectuals. I can see #2 (depressing as it is) and I can see #3 (even when it’s used to defend a really bad specific tactical or strategic move made by some group of leftists) but #2 and #3 combined are a form of turtling up against any possibility of being criticized while also reserving the right to criticize everything that anyone else is doing.
I think it’s important to have some idea about what the systematic goals are. That’s not about painting a perfect map between right now and utopia, but the lack of some consistent systematic ideas that make connections between the specific campaigns or reforms or issues that drawn attention on the left is one reason why we end up in “circular firing squads”. But I also agree that it’s unfair to argue that any specific reform or ideal is not worth taking up if it can’t explain that effort will fix everything that’s broken.
4. It’s futile to do anything, but why are you just sitting around?
E.g., this is another form of justifying a kind of supine posture for left intellectuals–a certainty that there is no good answer to the question “What is to be done?” but that the doing of nothing by others (or their preoccupation with anything but the general systematic brokenness of late capitalism) is always worth complaining about. Indeed, that the complaint against the doing-nothingness of others is a form of doing-something that exempts the complainer from the complaint.
The answer, it seems to me, is to opt out of these traps wherever and whenever possible.
We should historicize always and with specificity. No, everything is not worse or was not worse. Things change, and sometimes neither for better nor worse. Take the Internet. There’s no reason to get stuck in the trap of trying to categorize or assess its totality. There are plenty of very good, rich, complex histories of digital culture and information technology that refuse to do anything of the sort. We can talk about Wikipedia or Linux, Amazon or Arpanet, Usenet or Tumblr, without having to melt them into a giant slurry that we then weigh on some abstracted scale of wretchedness or messianism.
If you flip the combination of #2 and #3 on their head so that it’s a positive rather than negative assertion, that we need systematic change and that individual initiatives are valid, then it’s an enabling rather than disabling combination. It reminds progressives to look for underlying reasons and commitments that connect struggles and ideals, but it also appreciates the least spreading motion of a rhizome as something worth undertaking.
If you reverse #4, maybe that could allow left intellectuals to work towards a more modest and forgiving sense of their own responsibilities, and a more appreciative understanding of the myriad ways that other people seek pleasure and possibility. That not everything around us is a fallen world, and that not every waking minute of every waking day needs to be judged in terms of whether it moves towards salvation.
We can’t keep saying that everything is so terrible that people have got to do something urgently, right now, but also that it’s always been terrible and that we have always failed to do something urgently, or that the urgent things we have done never amount to anything of importance. We disregard both the things that really have changed–Zinn was wrong about his cyclical vision–and the things that might become worse in a way we’ve never heretofore experienced. At those moments, we set ourselves against what people know in their bones about the lives they lived and the futures they fear. And we can’t keep setting ourselves in the center of some web of critique, ready to spin traps whenever a thread quivers with movement. Politics happens at conjunctures that magnify and intensify what we do as human beings–and offer both reward and danger as a result. It does not hover with equal anxiety and import around the buttering of toast and the gathering of angry crowds at a Trump rally.