Against Narrative Cop-Outs


“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” ― Joan Didion, The White Album

Many of you know that I do not take most those who think of themselves as “the left” all that seriously seriously, although I have tried in all sincerity… twice for several years in in the last two decades I have tried:  once beginning with the Battle for the Seattle and the cycle of depoliticization that followed, and once that started about seven months before Occupy.  This blog began as me writing about questionable liberal and conservative-minded political trends in education and stoicism, but in 2010, after two years of reflection, I got back involved with “the left.”   I will spare you the details, they have been recounted before.  In the last year, I have made several posts distancing myself from various trends in left-wing thought:  “political” Marxist sectlects (not to be confused with the school of political Marxist historical analysis around Timothy Brennan, which I still value), left liberalism and Neo-Keynesianism, overly confident Marxist teleology, the call-out culture around “the left,” the use and mis-use of the idea of privilege and searching it out in cultural artifacts as a meaningful tactic, etc.

With the noted exception of a few Left Communists and Marxist-Humanists,  I have interacted with, the theoretical and analytical work of most the leftists I have worked have been bogged down in typologies and asserting ideological readings which cannot be disproved.  Narrative-mongering and resorting to typologies from Lacan and Freud, or worse by some doctrinaire party communist in the 1960s, have by and large been used as a way to avoid doing material analysis.   For example, in response to my question on “What happened to the all the leftists in the 1970s?,” I got several answers.  None of which from people old enough to remember the 1970s activists and none of which incorporating any data or trying to find the specific members of cadres.  I got narratives which explained things from a particular ideological point of view: labor aristocracy, latent racialism, the siren call of activist Democratic work, Reagan’s renewal, etc.     No narrative accounting, few anecdotes, no statistics, no follow-up on cadres:   even lamest businesses tend to do exit interviews, but not the left.

Why?   I have no idea and would be committing a similar “sin” against the left to psychological explain away this tendency, or to super-impose an ideological reading without trying to do the fieldwork first.  I know several ex-leftists: some became religious, some began libertarians, many just walked away.  This is only two years after Occupy.  The thing I have noticed by the way “the left” typologizes is that it has pat labels to seemingly avoid engagement:  opportunism, determinism, ultra-leftism, vanguardism, trade-union consciousness, brocialism, etc.  These labels shut down discussion and end the debate, but also contradict each other in substance.   While they made have been meaningful categorizations–and in some specific contextual cases might still be–by and large they function as derailment mechanism.

In my life, I have noticed that movements that are more serious do not this, and this at one time included by Marxism and anarchism.   Libertarianism, as an American path, definitely has similar trends: it has a wonky side, which one can see in various guises,  and a side that has categorical disclaimers which function to shut people up (that statists, collectivist, etc).   The later is decadent to the theoretical apparatus.  It is clear to leftists when they deal with internet libertarians that many of these terms serve to shut things down and stand-in for pat readings of the past, but many of these same leftists do not acknowledge the tendency in their own movements.   It has been noticed that earlier Marxist texts, particularly those prior to the 1960s in the English and French speaking worlds, were much more concerned with facts and figures.  Despite both the Hegelian methodology and the literary flourishes, Marx does deal with tons of hard economic data.   When talking to a some Marxists on a skype call a few weeks ago, I was told that such concern, “was a weird Marxism because most people do not care about these things. We need the entire world to become Marxists.”

This may sound like a stereotype from a Joan Didion piece about the 1970s, but I assure you it was 2014 and with a math professor saying thing in all earnestness.  It would be wrong to tar all Marxist thinking with such a brush–many economists and historians using Marx as a methodological starting point still do deep work on the questions around empirical facts.  I suspect too many years of post-Marxism, and then return to Marx via Lacan, have given an academic vocabulary for non-engagement on one end, while years of denouncements and need categorical claims of activists have done the same on the other.  When paired with a tendency to tell broad stories without looking at evidence beyond, at best, the textual or anecdotal, one has a confirmation bias heuristic on speed.

So these easy narratives, they stories we tell ourselves have to be based in the facts of the world around us and not typologies which inhabit us from dealing with facts and then honestly self-criticizing.   In so much that individuals have heuristics that discredit before criticism, or even empirical facts or scientific ideas, are engaged with, any political vision they may believe in is not even a remote possibility.  It remains an eschatology, and not a meaningful teleology.   This is not to say that one should turn to postivism or that we exist without any commitments to principles or values which are beyond mere facts.  The latter is particularly problematic.  We need those kinds of commitments and stories  to live.  Questions of fact, however, must be answered at first.  To avoid empirical questions  is to reduce politics to idea-policing and role-playing, which the latter is far more fun than ideological righteousness for a cause one has no one of ever understanding, much less bringing into practice.

(originally published here)


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