If Everything is Problematic, then nothing (meaningfully) is… or what’s Left?

I was reading Aurora Dagny‘s Everything is Problematic, and I have decided to publicly work through my response because it mirrors my own thoughts on these matters, but I take a dimmer view of the possibility of left identity formation without the negatives she describes.  If one is to be serious, however, one must be clear about the object of critique and the operating definitions.  “Left” here means forms of liberal and socialist thought that break with the liberal traditionalism that dominates both right and left in the US and Western Europe.   Now, the liberal tradition, itself is hard to define.   When libertarians claim classical liberalism, they are not entirely wrong; however, classical and ortho-liberalisms contains everyone from John Locke to Edmond Burke to Jacobin Club to John Rawls and Friedrich Hayek.   It is, itself, like most operating worldviews: diverse, varioius, and but its similiarities to each other are often hidden.

I. What are We Even Talking About… Exactly. 

So let’s look at the current liberalism in a cluster of ideas that one sees shared in predominant form:
1) Focus on the human–particularly in a binary view between individual and society, or individual and collective.  Most forms of current traditional liberalism focus on the individual, but this has not always been the case, with focus on the “people” as a mass being common.  (Furthermore, this focus on “the masses” is a Rousseauian affair, but one sees it in national liberation politics in “Marxist” groups like CCP, etc.  I think this class collaborationism is an indication of a liberalizing tendency even in post-Mao Stalinism.  If one reads Mao’s intellectual history, this should not be surprising as his formative college work was mainly on Nietzschean liberals and then Russian and Chinese anarchism, his conversion to Marxist-Leninism was quite late).  If one frames politics as individual versus collective, instead of seeing a complicated interplay between the two, you are probably dealing with something of the liberal tradition.

2) Focus on rights–liberalism justified itself in a mixture of natural law theory and religious humanism.  Rights were granted by God to all humanity, the way the sovereign granted privileges. When some of the religious right point this out, they are not wrong.  Outside of the context, rights as such aren’t coherent concepts.  They are just granted by sovereigns in a formal way, but neither inalienable nor self-evident.   Delineating them into negative and positive rights also has an individualistic or collective framework from which those grants can be granted and to whom they can be applied.

3) A conception of the universality of politics but the particularity of sovereignity.  Politics  is assumed to have a universal form of legitimacy even if the national particularities are taken account in a polity.  Whether the conception is liberty, equality, and fraternity (or the pursuit of happiness), poverty, flourishing, democracy, etc, one still justifies a polity in an abstract and assumed universal value.

4) A general belief in economic freedom, whether conceived of in laissez faire, social welfare, or neo-liberal models of engagement.  Mostly favoring markets and prices as an epistemic tool.

Now all this seems far off from either what Aurora Dagny is talking about or most of the current political debates as this seems to apply, but we should be clear, most of forms of Marxism, Feminism, Identarianism, and post-structuralism take a position that emerges from but is highly critical of that framework.  Feminism and Identarianism (in both left and right wing forms actually), generally start pointing out the inconsistencies and failures of the current liberal framework, but as that suspicion expands the framework itself is seen as unfair or impossible.  Yet, most identarianism maintains a lot of the language of the liberal framework, and generally appeal to universality.  This is why it makes sense to talk about liberal and radical feminism, even if they BOTH emerge out of the current tradition.  The first assumes the essential validity of most of the broad liberal framework, and the other sees itself as opposed to most of that framework, but not all of it.  Now, you can further break this down because of other operating frameworks (first-, second-, third-wave, truscum, gender-queer, sex positive, sex negative,gender-abolitionist. etc) which emerge as answers to the critique of the current traditional liberalism. Anti-racism is not quite as diverse in its operating frameworks, but there are still divisions ( intersectionalists, identity nationalists, afro-pessimists, liberal anti-racists, etc.)

I tend to call these critiques of liberalism as a whole from liberalism itself, radical liberalism.   I used to use this as an insult, but now I just mean it as a descriptor.   These are ideological frameworks that emerge from material and social contradictions within the current liberal framework, which then turn to critique both the material conditions and the generally the framework itself.

Marxism and Socialism take a similar “loyal opposition” to modernity and its traditional liberalism as well.  Seeing liberalism as structurally contradictory, they to argue that economic and social contradictions within capitalist modernity will collapse liberalism and enable either socialism to negate it or fulfill liberalism universal promise.  The uncomfortability with modernity varies greatly between Marxist groups, but also all tend to share a critique of the “individual and collective” society–that this distinction is false.  Now socialists can also tend towards the Rousseauian view of collectivity, but many conservatives talking about Marx’s are actually talking about Rouseau.  A quick read of the Grundisse would disabuse them of this conflation. The difference, however, between the socialist conception and the identarian conception is generally that the working class is not just abolishing its oppressors, but also abolishing itself.  Marx’s point here is interesting:  if the working class assumes power, the working class itself is also no longer the proletariat. No one is.

So these are the operant definitions I am working with—they may or may not be Aurora Dagny’s definitions. I have been involved in left politics on and off for sixteen years.  I attended anti-WTO rallies as early as 17 and had a fascination with gutter punks–ended up homeless for a little while and wrote about them. I read my first Chomsky essay at 13 or 14-years-old.  After what I felt was systemic fetishization of defeat and various moral positions which only got worse in the anti-war movement, I moved right-ward.  Now, there are multiple kinds of rightwards: think The American Conservative, not Drudge Report.  I still considered myself an environmentalist. I didn’t trust corporations. I wasn’t particularly religious. I even wasn’t sure nationalism made any sense, but I saw an appeal to status and older, pre-WWII developments as the answer to North America’s problems.

Around 2006, however, I found the conservative and libertarian opposition to Bush less appealing.   The fear of immigrants seemed selective.  The failure to effectively challenge what I saw as the conservative war consensus made it harder. Furthermore, I began working the public schools–so instead of mocking the pieties of graduate students who were richer than I was, I was dealing with the realities of working with poor children and teenagers.  I found my liberal colleagues annoying on a different level–it was all talk, but little action and no analysis.

I had studied enough economics in Uni–in fact, the economics department had tried to recruit me from the philosophy and English departments–and worked at a large insurance company for a year or so, I studied Keynesian and Marxian analyzes of what I saw to be a housing crisis.  Only two groups were good at calling crises, Marxists and Austrians.  Austrian praxeology, however, seems like Kantianism bred with physics to produce an economic paradigm that was static and a priori.  Furthermore, it tended to align itself to elements of the right that I had previously found distasteful.   It seemed to operate on a myth about origins of property that seemed pulled out of Johann Locke’s ass than anything I have studied about the transitions from fuedalism to mercentilism and from mercentilism to capitalism.

I read the Manifesto and felt like it was mainly agitiprop, but then I read volume one of Kapital and Gothakritik.  I had tools.  I had analysis. I needed a politics.   Now readers of my old blogs know this history, and probably know what I recounted.  Needless to say,  I went back into academia briefly, Occupy happened. I almost joined the SPUSA. I did join Platypus Affliated Society. I left.  I started writing for the North Star.  I left.  I started doing podcasts on left-wing ideas and interrogating those ideas.

I do not see myself stopping interrogating those ideas as a form of understanding politics, but I have retreated from most of the activist world and most of the Marxist world.  Two friends sent me the Aurora Dagny article: one a conservative (and not a liberal one like you meet in the non-religious quarters of the GOP) and one is a disillusioned Marxist.  In fact, the conservative linked me to TAC write-up on it.

II. Spectres of Depoliticization. 

Lately, many of my long time far left friends over thirty are giving up.   Maintaining the strange age-distinction one sees in left-wing circles, marginal political parties led by Boomers who were involved in 1968 and 1969, and twenty-somethings.  Generally this is explained by expendable time–it’s hard to organize and do reading circles all the time if one is not either a) a student, b) an academic, or c) rich after one’s twenties.  This is different. While by no means rich, these individuals are just walking away from politics after being involved despite having children and having lower level academic jobs which required a lot of work for not a hell of a lot pay.    They are particularly burned by the activist and cyber-activist communities.

Now, what Aurora Dagny is often unique to politics around identity, and I will get into specifics in my list, but the intersection of Marxism in it various and opposing forms, intersectionalism (which is oft derived in the right and left-wing blogosphere as Social Justice Warriorism, but I won’t call it that because its unfair and actually probably not accurate), and left-liberals have burnt all involved.  Furthermore, most of what Aurora Dagny is describing was described in the late 1960s, so its not new.

Adorno’s resignation is about this. Bob Black and the post-left anarchy movement emerged out of this in the 1990s.  Hell, James Burnham went this way in the thirties.  Older and more analytically inclined Marxists and leftists have a tendency rightward, but it has a cycle and it is not just rooted in bad faith.

Let us look at publishing: If I list former Marxist magazines from the 1960s, the ones that are still around have either liberalizations or even gone right:  Telos has published right leaning texts for a decade, and it started as a Frankfurt school Magazine, Sp!ked, which sometimes feels like Reason Magazine for the UK, started from a Trotskyist party, the Partisan Review became more and more rooted in mainstream publics, and Commentary became an organ of neo-conservatism.  Jacobin, itself still marketed as a radical magazine, increasingly shares content and perspectives with liberal magazines like Mother Jones, the Nation, and In These Times.    Furthermore, the gap created is largely filled by large media outlets engaging in left-liberal clickbait that are dependent on outrage cycles, which exhaust themselves quickly:  Salon and even the Atlantic increasingly move in this direction. The conflation of liberalism with Marxism is something that most right-wingers, from US mainstream to extreme far right, already engage in doing, but it is happening nonetheless.

The conflicting paradigms against current traditional liberalism on the left are often in direct epistemic conflict and are trying to recruit from the same sources–students, academics, the precarious parts of the working class in major cities, and to a lesser degree, the labor movement.   However, almost all agree the labor movement is all but dead. Occupy also has moved into the same kinds of careerist activism that plagued the ends of 1968 and the late 1990s anti-Globalization movement.

III. Everything is problematic 

Finally, we get to what Aurora Dagny asserts, but also the caveats she feels necessary to make.  She is against oppressive politics and Marxist-Leninism, which seen as authoritarian and reactionary, She is a social democrat now, which is slightly left of US left-liberals (in and out of the Democratic party), and is critiquing a particular strain (which is an identity-based strain pulling from some Marxism, but also intersectionalist readings of stand-point epistemology).  I don’t share her assumptions and I find it interesting that she feels the need to make the criticisms from the slightly less left instead of letting the criticisms stand on their own.   Such caveats are common in this kind of writing, and perhaps necessary, but why those kinds of admissions are common and necessary perhaps needs to be interrogated:   why would one need to say that they were anti-oppressive?   While people may view oppression is as a tragic necessary, almost no one conceives of themselves as oppressive alright.  The push for a moral distance is sadly necessary for any of her somewhat basic criticisms to be heard.

Dagny comes up with a list of traits she finds “dark and culty”:  “dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality and anti-intellectualism.”  While this is neither a criticism nor a valorization, but this seems like a list from Czeslaw Milosz’s the captive mind or a distillation of an Orwell essay from the late 1930s.  None of these traits are unique to leftism either: an honest person can find counter-parts in all ideologies.  Still, I don’t think Dagny is wrong here, although the anti-intellectualism is not universal to all the far left. In fact, some factions and tendencies completely invert it.

Rants of dogmatism and groupthink amongst political ideologues are common and earned all over the spectrum from Bookchinites to the Tea Party to Neo-conservatives to Maoist revolutionary parties. I will not comment on that element because I have far less to say, but the later two I will talk about in specific terms.

Dagny talks the crusader mentality thusly:

High on their own supply, activists in these organizing circles end up developing a crusader mentality: an extreme self-righteousness based on the conviction that they are doing the secular equivalent of God’s work. It isn’t about ego or elevating oneself. In fact, the activists I knew and I tended to denigrate ourselves more than anything. It wasn’t about us, it was about the desperately needed work we were doing, it was about the people we were trying to help. The danger of the crusader mentality is that it turns the world in a battle between good and evil. Actions that would otherwise seem extreme and crazy become natural and expected. I didn’t think twice about doing a lot of things I would never do today.

Nothing particular new there as anyone who has observed the fervor of dualistic theologies when applied to politics can tell you, but it does explain a lot of the alienation the left feels from itself.  This mentality that something must be done, but nothing can be done, often leads one to look to others for bad faith or lack of commitment. This tends to not only root out intellectual diversity, but also encourage distrust.  This can incidentally turn cult-like very quickly with things being justified: from flaming to outing to doxxing to rape cover-ups.  Sadly, all of which are fairly common in far left groups and at rallies. Anti-hierarchical organizations can enforce rigid hierarchies based on perceived moral malaise or deviance.

This drift is extreme for a reason I will go into over time and have mentioned in other pieces of writing and in podcasts (I think), but it comes from basically terror management theory.   To reduce cognitive dissonance and the nearly physical pain that goes with it, a series of self-justifications kick in which means that our actions are justified.  This is a feedback loop, and certain kinds of moral communities cannot under any circumstances admit this.   In my own life, some writings I had done against vulgar race realism had been re-read by activists saying that was secretly or, perhaps not so secretly, the very position I thought I was critiquing by “accepting their terms of discourse.”  I was thinking I was accepting the genetics research said race realists were misunderstanding and misrepresenting, but said individual said that considering that position at all was pretty much equal to holding it.

Was said individual lying?  I doubt it. I sincerely think he believed it. Or, he did after a few tellings anyway.  I have seen this applied to others in left-wing circles in ways that cost them jobs, and this tactic is common in activist circles: it’s called no platforming.  When this is confronted as an act of censorship, many of the left will point out, rightfully, that corporations and what not do that all the time.  It’s true. So what?   This thinking is basically tu quo que fallacy and places a moral standard on one’s enemies but not on oneself.   The right-wing thinker Carl Schmitt called this an act of sovereignty: the state of exception is granted solely by the person to has the power and thus can make the conditions of engagement.  In this sense, this is a hypocritical move for “anti-oppression” politics, but its an entirely understandable one from the mentality discussed.

Since most left-wing politics is rounded in a response to relieve differing forms of alienation, this kind of treatment generally further alienates those within the circles, often producing “the left’s” most effective enemies outside of the economic sphere.  I can list names for hours, but let someone like James Burnham and Whitaker Chambers speak for themselves.

This brings us to the anti-intellectualism, and again, I will let Dagny speak for herself:

Anti-intellectualism is a pill I swallowed, but it got caught in my throat, and that would eventually save me. It comes in a few forms. Activists in these circles often express disdain for theory because they take theoretical issues to be idle sudoku puzzles far removed from the real issues on the ground. This is what led one friend of mine to say, in anger and disbelief, “People’s lives aren’t some theoretical issue!” That same person also declared allegiance to a large number of theories about people’s lives, which reveals something important. Almost everything we do depends on one theoretical belief or another, which range from simple to complex and from implicit to explicit. A theoretical issue is just a general or fundamental question about something that we find important enough to think about. Theoretical issues include ethical issues, issues of political philosophy and issues about the ontological status of gender, race and disability. Ultimately, it’s hard to draw a clear line between theorizing and thinking in general. Disdain for thinking is ludicrous, and no one would ever express it if they knew that’s what they were doing.

If one reads the Adorno essay, or any number of accounts of the post-68/69 leftists that is not entirely hagiographical (We Will Return In The Whirlwind by Muhammad Ahmed, Revolution in the Air by Max Elbaum, The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay, The Wind from the East and The Seduction of Unreason by Richard Wolin are all good examples with different focuses and different sets of biases), one sees these trends early on in all these movements.  The current version of this in intersectionalist circles is rooted in three theories, all of which have traces to early 20th century radical thinkers but are assumed in most liberal discourse (including the “left-wing” of current traditional liberalism), and all of which have departed from a nearly purely structural focus to a confused focus where the individual is taken as the locus for a structural problem.  I will start with the most commonly accepted of theories and move out:

1) Privilege theory.   I have said this many times before, privilege theory was created as a pedagogical tool.  W.E. DuBois first used privilege to describe the subtle forms of cultural capital (a term coined a half-century later) that was accorded whites above and beyond economic dominance.  This came from a complex of legal counts and what Marxist would call primitive accumulation. It was a short hand for talking the following. This is how I explain “racism without racists” to my students: “Let’s imagine there is a group of people that is allowed any kind of work they can procure, and another group limited to certain kinds of work or outright enslaved.  This goes one for 200 to 500 years.  Then one day, the slaves are freed, the serfs are unbound from the land, the restrictions lifted, whatever.  You and the group that could do anything they wanted, but the first group has 200 years of gathering stuff, and the second group has none. Who is going to dominate the society?”  My students always reply, regardless of their–generally inherited–political leanings, “the first group.” “Now let’s imagine the oppressed group is obviously different in some way, skin color, gender, sex, language etc.  Are you not going to assume that any one in those characters has less money and treat them accordingly?” Some say, “No.. well.. urm… maybe a little bit.”  Some say, “yes.”

This is what privilege was describing.  Cultural capital + primitive accumulation. (This gets vulgarized into “power + privilege = racism,” an equation that some sociologists may accept but confuses things since it seems to conflate all kinds of racism as one thing, which I think is actually damaging to the original point as explicit and even implicit psychological racism would be implied in the above). This is a material reality. The original examples in that famous “invisible knapsack” essay, but it was removed from this material context. Now, the person who reintroduced privilege theory as a pedagogical tool was probably Peggy MacIntosh in the late 1980s in a book called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.”  Now while many of the ideas I have issues with theories from sociologists, which we shall see later, MacIntosh was an education professor and former teacher.  This was a pedagogical framework taken from DuBois and applied as an educational example for how sociological realities can complicate education and social justice work.

Now, MacIntosh, however, began to see remove this from its context in political economic and move into the more abstract level of discourse.  Here, in my personal opinion, is where the mystification of privilege began.  What do I mean by mystification?  It means taking something that has material correspondence and making it more and more abstract.  Furthermore, as a pedagogical example, this makes perfect sense, but as a theoretical apparatus, it is purely negative.  Privileges are things can be fixed by granting them to everyone, thus making it not a privilege, or removing them from everyone, thus reducing people to a lowest common denominator approach to social condition described. One can see this in the hashtag #crimingwhilewhite,  it is very unclear if the goal that everyone should receive that respect or if white people should just be randomly shot.   No one would say the latter except maybe as a form of misplaced–in the sense that would be arbitrary beyond race who is affected–revenge.  Yet the examples are easily read that way.   Stupid white guy aims a gun at the cops, why didn’t the cops just off him. It is important to note, that if one is poor the cops generally still do, but if your odds of surviving are significantly better of surviving if white, then (most) asian, and if you are black or Native American, you’re basically dead.   Furthermore, this is true with little difference in regards to the race of the police officer in question from most of the research I have seen.

Privilege becomes seen as a monolithic, or even intersecting force.  Instead of describing a complex socio-economic development that overlays with implicit bias and historical hatred–but can actually exist apart from the latter–it is seen as the cause itself.   Furthermore, one tends to argue with individuals and focus that rage when the problems exist in a structure.   Realizing one’s privilege does not undo it.  Sensitivity to privilege does not unto it.   It’s a metaphor for a material reality.

2) Stand-point epistemology.    This is a more complicated theoretical assumption than the above.  In the early 1970s, Dorothy Smith was inspired to write about the woman’s movement, and apply a particular reading of Karl Marx to the movement.  Her reading focused in on Lukacs–and later theorists would also pull from Gramsci and Lenin–reading of the  stand-point of the work.  Standpoint epistemology, while often linked to post-structuralism now, was originally an attempt to valorize and reclaim “woman’s knowledge.”  Smith thought that reappraising women’s knowledge would also make them more conscious of their relationship to the society.  Since women were generally oppressed as a group and exploited—and in Marx’s framework, oppression and exploitation are different things–their knowledge of their own condition was reduced and silenced. Nancy Hartsock developed this further, rooting it more explicitly in Marx and setting up the framework generally accepted that woman’s knowledge to be valorized as point of departure from men’s knowledge.  Smith and Hartsock was quickly criticized by other people linked to this view of feminism such as Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding.   Haraway feared that classical stand point feminism was both too essentializing–as if there was an Ur-form of woman’s experience–and too relativistic, as if identity claims and knowledge were the same thing.

Sandra Harding and Donna Haraway then focused on development standpoint theory as respected of various economic and social relationships, so that the issue between men and women were products of social relations and not essential differences. Both thinkers also developed the idea of knowledge being situated–since one could not change one’s perspective and its qualia from one’s social relations, all social relations have to be seen as having valid means to knowledge.  The feminist perspective remained Harding and Haraway’s focus, but this matrix could be applied to other notions.

While not directly related, in the late 80s and early 90s, post-structuralism was re-integrated into this view.  Judith Butler’s notion that gender is performative–what one does instead of what one is either socially or biologically–and our identifications of social categories were related to that was imposed on this theory despite the fact that the epistemological assumptions of Butler’s performative gender, with its relationship to Foucault, and Haraway’s and Harding’s focus on situated knowledge conflicted directly: Harding and Haraway think we can approach objective reality without exactly knowing it, Butler has no such considerations. However, the notion performative relationships was consistent with the idea, and thus the basic assumptions of a lot of activist circles was born.

Now, I actually think there are tons of insights in Harding and Haraway’s work in particular, but what one has seen is a practical use, standpoint theory applies to its original meaning where a woman’s experience is valorized and seen as valid as both an experience AND as knowledge in and of itself.  In application, the subtle differences between these forms of thought as lose, and texts like the original “Derailing for Dummies” uses the idea that logic itself can be dismissed as a tool of the oppressor given its origins in male-dominated intellectual world:

You see, the very capacity to conduct studies, collect data and write detached “fact-based” reports on it, is an inherently privileged activity. The ability to widely access this material and research it exhaustively is also inherently privileged. Privileged People® find it easier to pursue these avenues than Marginalised People™ and so once again you are reminding them you possess this privilege and reinforcing that the world at large values a system of analysis that excludes them, and values it over what their actual personal experience has been.

The process of valuing “fact” over “opinion” is one very much rooted in preserving privilege. Through this methodology, the continued pain and othering of millions of people can be ignored because it’s supported by “opinion” (emotion) and not “fact” (rationality).

The current Derailing for Dummies has softened this claim to uses of “intellectualism” but this is also a mystification as intellectualism is incredibly vague.  Claims that Harding and Haraway would never make–and I am not sure Smith or Hartstock would either.

In this usage of standpoint theory, which I think is a disservice to its development, one sees exactly what Dagny is talking about.  Emotional experience is given as a form of knowledge, not only of one’s own pain and trauma (which seem clearly to be), but also of an entire structure of oppression and exploitation in which one sits.  Harding would say that only by adding all situated knowledges together could we approach such a structural awareness, but that is NOT the claim made by activists, which then also make ad hominem attacks seem like an legitimate argument.

3) Intersectionality theory.  This is the term with the newest pedigree of the three mentioned, and its one that I find the most problematic in application.  This saddens me to no end because I thought it was originally promising.  I even called for a “return to a materialist form of intersectionality” when I was working for the North Star in an reply to essay by Mark Fisher that spawned a series of (in)famous debates in the activist left-milieu and in the far left in general.

While I think made famous by the educational and cultural theorist, bell hooks and Audre Lorde, in the mid-to-late 1990s, intersectionality is a little older than that.  In 1989, sociologist and legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw wanted to come up with framework that combined insights from sociology, political economy, critical theory, and law.  Crenshaw wanted to analysis how identities interacted as well as attendant traumas, oppressions, exploitation into one unified framework.  She posited that structurally and economically imposed identities intersected to create the experience of individuals.  Different types of privileges and events could be waited against each other to see the effects and see locus points where such identities could be broken down from their oppressive matrixes.  She was building upon ideas found in “revisionist feminist theory” which had developed around both the development of post-structuralism and standpoint epistemology, including some of bell hooks earlier works in the 1980s around black feminism.

Now, if you encounter intersectionality in sociology, where it is increasingly a dominant framework, or in activist circles, where outside of some forms of Marxism, it IS the dominant framework, you will generally see it broken down in three ways:

  • interlocking matrixes of oppression (and sometimes exploitation)
  • standpoint epistemology and the outsider within
  • Resistance to Oppression and Othering

The latter two nodes are not unique to intersectionality.  However, they are modified. The outsider within modeling upon the stand-point theory. Patricia Collins was particularly influential here.  While Collins sees herself working in the Marxist-feminist tradition, the focus internalizations and internalized norms mirrors Marxist ideas about “false consciousness” (which is a phrase found on where in Marx and only in letters by Engels), the outsider within is the voice. Furthermore, Collins did not use Harding and Haraway’s situated knowledge (towards objectivity) as a starting point, but pulled more form Dorothy Smith. Generally the consensus view on Collins and Smith is stated in a book by Susan Mann and Lori Kelly called Standing At The Crossroads of Modernist Thought: Collins, Smith, and New Feminist Epistemologies as being a radically individual and subjectivist approach that resists objectified knowledge and objectification by validating individual oppressed people’s experiences as knowledge.  

The more moderate and actually already intersectional claims of Haraway and Harding thus remained largely academic whereas this earlier version of standpoint epistemology came to dominate sociological theory in the late 1990s, activism in the early to mid- 2000s, and tumblr post-Occupy.

Another area to look at here is the idea of Other and Othering was pulled into the theoretical framework from both general sociology as well as the french thinker Emmanuel Levinas who was working through the lost of his family in the holocaust and the psychological frameworks that led to it.  This is particularly developed in Audre Lorde and Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa, but also had a strong tradition in post-structural theory before that.   Lorde’s version refers to othering as an attempt to impose a “mythical norm” upon someone.   This reminds me of Hobshawm’s idea of invented traditions to normalize certain kinds of power-imbalances, but is vaguer.

In this one sees the trend of decreased specificity and materiality in the claims made: vulgarization and mystification.  The vaguer the claim, the more polemically useful it is but the less analytically useful it is. The less analytically useful a concept is, I think one sacrifices long-term strategy for short-run tactics in its use.

While not crucial to inter-sectionality theory, the idea of micro-aggressions personalizes this focus.  Chester M. Pierce, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard, first coined and described the term as in black patients he was working with as a kind of unintended discrimination that constantly evoked trauma.  This was particularly hard for the patients to deal with because of attributional ambiguity since the offenders were both well-meaning and unconscious of their aggression.  This is a pretty well-documented psychological effect and I take it to be a generally real condition. Why does this complicate intersectionality theory?

Micro-aggressions taken in tandem with a subjectivist version of standpoint epistemology make any denial or even questioning of that position at form of “traumatic emotional labor.”  Thus the conflation of personal with the political renders criterions of disagreement mute.   So while a real psychological relationship that may be happening in the context of these debates given various levels of symbolic power, when taken as a political world, this can be the ultimate in confirmation bias mechanisms.  Dogmas, identities, experiences, nothing can be questioned without possibly being dismissed as a psychological attack.

While this is a very short-hand description that underplays key players and skips incremental genealogical steps in idealogical development, one can see that three very intellectual theories when combined would have a tendency to focus on personal experience at the expense of other forms of knowledge.  This would lead to unintended, but thorough anti-intellectualism, particularly when post-modernist and post-structuralist trends are added into the mix where narrativizing is distrusted en toto.  

I go through this brief intellectual genealogy for two reasons: 1) I actually think all of these ideas and others that have become problematic on the identity-justice left are rooted in analyzes that begin in good faith describing real problems or educating about real problems.  I do not think any of these theoretical frameworks began as identity reification mechanism even though I think in large part they are often used that way. 2) Ideas have consequences. Not just because of the consequences of the idea itself, but also its interplay with material reality and other ideas one is not aware.

Particularly in intersectionalist activist circles, one sees the development of call-out culture.  While Asam Ahmad has written on the problems here in his recent piece for Briarpatch magazine, Ahmad’s two key points are crucial here: it doesn’t make sense to hold people individually accountable for collective problems even in the case of things like micro-aggressions, and call-out culture itself mirrors exactly what it critiques: it polices and otherizes, invalidates experience, and reduces them to a experience in a node.

IV.  The Backlash Against Backlash is Not Enough

I can’t, however, stop where Aurora Dagny does or even Asam Ahmad.  I use historical, sociological, and psychological paradigms and I don’t think the problems within the left are acts of bad faith, or even totally the results of bad ideas.  The break from these chains must be deeper and more complete.   What do I mean here?

The backlash against backlash is spreading leftward.   No longer is just shrill voices of GOP hacks complaining about the drift in left culture, and the depoliticization of a lot of my older friends are key to this. Yes, I know, the plural of anecdotes is not data, but data is not necessarily understanding either.   The backlash against backlash happens periodically:  in 1980s, in the late 1990s against “political correctness,” and now that we have had another movement put down without bullets (although it did take some nightsticks and tear gas) while the political machines largely keep on truckin’.

This too is part of the cycle.  This too is part of the structure.  Everything is problematic renders nothing problematic.  Complex systems thus can keep on getting more and more complex.. until they collapse.  The collapse is not inevitable, but social infrastructure, like material infrastructure, is harder to fix by either reform or revolution the longer it is allowed to exhaust itself.  Evolution, however, happens regardless of the severity and scale of change.  Evolution also is haphazard process that kills 99.9% of everything it ever helped to create. Keep that as perspective.

V. Folk Politics, Marches, The Real Movement, Reformism and Revolution, the Ur-Worker and other flotsam in the water filter of history 

Largely we have been focusing on personal anecdotes and theoretical genealogies, but its time to take a harder look at the trajectory of the “far left.”  Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek of #Accelerate fame, pulled a concept from cognitive science and  appropriated it for politics.  Folk theory of mind, a bug-bear of people like Wilfred Sellars and Ray Brassier, are the theories of mind we have as functional human beings that actually don’t correlate to what we know from neuropsychology.  Folk Politics are political truths, then, that we have in the present that correlate to present.

While Brassier and Sellars are eliminationist in their writings on folk theories of mind, Williams and Srnicek seek to contextualize folk politics as strategies that followed from a particular context that have been assumed outside of that context.   For example, use of mass parties as a educational and social mobilization tool.  In fact, if you talk most Marxists–Maoist, Trotskyists, Marxist-Leninist, Third-Worldist, Left Communist–the assumed mode of operations is a workers party to represent and organize the will of the proletariat.  However, these developed in a context different from the Anglo-American parties, which are older but more informal originally, or even contemporary European parliamentary parties.  The breakdown of public spaces, the invention of mass media, the drift towards demographic selectivity, lack of diversity in polity, and the internet have all subsumed the model of the party in almost all the OECD countries.   In places of crisis and extreme poverty, there are parties that have both the social and para-military functions of the old 19th century parties, but that context is far more socio-political pressure and breakdown than exists in the “core” capitalist countries and even the major cities outside of those cores. Furthermore, the uniformity of interest of the working class is by no means clear now.  Service sector employs do not have the ability to shut down production directly and are being automated into increasingly smaller roles.  Theoretically this should make a smaller group of workers more structurally powerful as they can limit automation, but labor inelasticity seems to play the opposite role. Someone can easily take your job unless you own capital, and maybe even then. Given these realities, what would a worker’s party do exactly?  Run educational reading groups of Das Kapital?  Enter parliamentary coalitions where they cannot act on their own accord?   Infiltrate one of the two primary parties in a congressional democracy via caucus and ignore the funding realities that demands?  Sell party newpapers?  Have more marches?

What exactly?

The folk politics doesn’t stop there either.  Protests and marches have been the norm of left-wing activism since the 1940s.  The context of these marches are lost.   In the late 19th century, marches and protests were peaceful requests for redresses of grievance that had a violent implication: we have the people to storm the halls of power if you don’t place nice.  Even non-violent protests of the 20th century worked this way:  ignoring the context of inter-war period, Gandhi was largely successful partly because the British were a) weak from war and b) knew that People’ party had guns and would use them if they didn’t deal with Gandhi.   There is a similar logic to civil rights movement: if not Martin, then Malcolm. If not Malcolm, then Marcus Garvey’s successor.

None of that exists now.  The modus operandi of protests is spectacle and hopefully moral outrage.  Occupy’s success in branding was largely due to Bloomberg’s police force acting sloppily in handling of arresting protestors in a time of obvious systemic crisis. Occupy never with the possible exception of Occupy Oakland could pose a threat to either the police of the day-to-day functioning of large business. Oakland’s only possibility was its ability to work with factions of the longshoreman’s union to shore down the port, but never for significant periods of time.

These are realities. No amount of wishful thinking changes those realities.  If you must depend on the common decency of others alone against overwhelming force, then you don’t have much.

This brings us to reform versus revolution talk.  What revolution is in left-wing circles is always vague, although historically its been two things: technological development altering social relations, paramilitary violence concretizing changes in social relations. Neither of which is the activist left in any position to do in the core countries, nor has national liberation in form colonial powers been able to resist incorporation into the capitalist world in a kind of socialist autarky.   What would such a para-military movement look like?  People who have studied third and fourth generation warfare can tell you:  social movements can outlast outside forces with shows of overwhelming force because all they have to do is survive.  However, direct revolutionary conflicts are often depend on totally contingent or external factors to happen.  Without World War 1, its hard to imagine both the Ottoman and Tsarist empires failing in the way that enabled both Young Turks and the Bolsheviks to take the kinds of power they were able to take with as small of a backing as they had.

Reformism, however, also seems limited by the context it is set in.  The ability of reforms to achieve their social goals without being undermined can be seen at the way the well-fate state in the larger capitalist countries was not able to keep both inflation and unemployment down.   Revisionism by more orthodox Keynesians tend to say things recently that basically people’s experience of the 1970s was not reality, but most economic graphs I have seen illustrate a decline to belong profitability for most sectors of the economy in the 1970s. Furthermore, the reformist tendency to focus on symbolic politics over materiality reality: integration of a small percentage of African Americans in the political elite, a marginal increase in female CEOs tends to actually silence really uncomfortable truths: the wealth gaps in US society between classes and races has steadily increased.

This indicates that the binary proposed for social development needs to be rethought: either revolution does not and cannot look like a militarized party in lieu of the modern state’s industrial-military apparatus (almost all revolutions post-1930s requiring complicity of military coups or at least strong factions in the military who will refuse to take arms–again, none of this in the richest countries) or reform must abandon the model that  looks like the partisan gamesmanship of the last century or the binary should be dropped all the together as a dichotomy that made more sense at a earlier point in history.

In Marxist circles, it has been a tendency to talk of the worker as the factory worker.  Despite the fact, that the single biggest industry in the US since the 1960s as far as individuals employed in it is truck driving.  Furthermore, automation and labor discipline have driven down the worker force for most industrial production and this trend is even strong in countries such as Mexico and China used for “outsourcing” in the 1980s and 1990s.  This does not explain all the structural unemployment but it does seem to explain trends in the “developed” (OECD) and “richer developing” world (BRICS, Mexico).   However, countries in the developing world such as those in North Africa and South Asia have never had anything like full employment in the last two or three decades while many countries in Europe have also seen relatively high unemployment rates (although most of those countries still have social safety nets to absorb the “surplus population” in ways one does not see in the US, UK, and the developing world).  The interests of these different workers both internal to a polity and external to it seem much more profound. Furthermore, workers are more integrated into capital in other ways as investors in 401k plans, small holders of stock, and people dependent on housing equity.

Most of the concerns of identity activism are “hegemonic” (and thus cultural). Marxist conceptions are not, but no Marxist group has figured out any way to organize after the break with the traditional unions in the 1940s and 1950s and the nearly worldwide decline of the labor movement now. Regroupment thus becomes about education and hosting the conservation, two activities which frankly do not have mass appeal and seem to pull largely from student-academic populations. Indeed, most of the “successful” labor advocacy in North America and the UK has been student led, and its larger systemic success is, at most optimistic, limited to sectors like TA and adjunct pay at the margins.

There is a lot more to dealing with “workers” now than just their chains.

Lastly, this brings me to real movements.   Anytime you see “real” in front of an abstract noun, you should have an alarm bell go off.  Often talk of real movement is used to explain the Marxist malaise as well as to critique identity politics which is assumed to be away from “real movements.”  The problem is that real movements are assumed to be mass movements, which historically even most revolutionary movements weren’t in a majoritarian sense, and sincere movements aimed a radical change.  The number of intangibles in that description is a tell.  Is Occupy a real movement?  It’s the largest left-wing protest since the 1970s in the US and one of the few that corresponded with other events in the world.  Was Mai 1968?  Was Summer of 1969 in North America?  These seem like real movements, but like the peasant’s revolts of the late middle ages and the Paris commune, after the dust settled like externally was changed.

VI.  What if everything really is problematic

Dagny has a checklist of what she would like to see individuals engaged in leftist activism:

First, embrace humility. You may find it refreshing. Others will find it refreshing too. Be forceful, be impassioned, just don’t get too high on your own supply. Don’t drink your own kool aid. Question yourself as fiercely as you question society.

Second, treat people as individuals. For instance, don’t treat every person who belongs to an oppressed group as an authoritative mouthpiece of that group as a whole. People aren’t plugged into some kind of hive mind. Treating them like they are, besides being essentialist, also leads to contradictions since, obviously, not all people agree on all things. There is no shortcut that allows you to avoid thinking for yourself about oppression simply by deferring to the judgements of others. You have to decide whose judgements you are going to trust, and that comes to the same thing as judging for yourself. This drops a huge responsibility on your lap. Grasp the nettle firmly. Accept the responsibility and hone your thinking. Notice contradictions and logical fallacies. When you hear an opinion about a kind of oppression from a member of the group that experiences it, seek out countervailing opinions from members of the same group and weigh them against each other. Don’t be afraid to have original insights.

Third, learn to be diplomatic. Not everything is a war of good versus evil. Reasonable, informed, conscientious people often disagree about important ethical issues. People are going to have different conceptions of what being anti-oppressive entails, so get used to disagreement. When it comes to moral disagreements, disbelief, anger and a sense of urgency are to be expected. They are inherent parts of moral disagreement. That’s what makes a diplomatic touch so necessary. Otherwise, everything turns into a shouting match.

Fourth, take a systems approach to the political spectrum. Treat the pursuit of the best kind of society as an engineering problem. Think about specific, concrete proposals. Would they actually work? Deconflate desirability and feasibility. Refine your categories beyond simple dichotomies like capitalism/socialism or statism/anarchism.

All of these points are to be recommended in individuals. Indeed, I may even say they are kind of a “minimum program of human decency.”  Yet I think Dagny is wrong if she thinks these prescriptions will save “the left” from itself.  In fact, I would go to say the radical left can’t do this. It’s folk politics may be seen as problematic but it serves a purpose.

1) Radical politics describes and is a product of alienation, but many of its practices reinforce that alienation. Dagny describes how much freer she felt leaving a lot of those politics behind.  This is common, but why?  Is it the call-out culture? Is it reformism corrupting those movements?  Or do these movements have a social function within current traditional liberalism as an outlet for that alienation and a way to police the outer edges of acceptable opinion?  While I cannot prove this rubric of suspicion, I suspect the latter.

2) The amount of emotional energy involved as well as personal identity invested in these movements makes breaking from them without either emotion exhaustion or actual trauma very difficult.  Generally the former kicks in eventually.  However, this means the investment to protect the very identity that one aims to also dissolve in most cases remains. This disconnect necessarily brings about extreme cognitive dissonance and in-group/out-group monitoring required to maintain such groups in lieu of any chance of political efficacy means that an echo chamber effects kicks in.  You have a perfect storm of cognitive dissonance, identity over-identification, and confirmation bias which is encourages to fend off the frustration that such radical goals take. Furthermore, leftists speak a language and use a set of analytical tools which is largely align to most people who function within the conservative (classical liberal), libertarian, or left liberal paradigms.  In fact, the left liberals may find far leftists the most alienating because they attack left-liberals form a vantage point they are unused to being attacked and thus trick more resentment than is generally even used for enemies.  Furthermore, the trends in the current traditional liberal framework is itself tending in similar ways to the far leftists due to echo chamber effects in media and social media and even the physical sorting of most OECD into like-minded neighborhoods–although this seems the most advanced in North America.

3) Leftists are not considered dangerous in general because they do have a function, which generally focuses and sublimates the alienation of a lot of otherwise marginalized people.  Far from being a threat to capital or liberal polities, it effectively enables those polities or businesses to commodify that rage and use to sure up partisan lines in voting. Particularly given that currently no forms of left groups really have the paramilitary inclinations of say the militia movement or even large scale criminal economies. Your average activist party would have a hard time handling a relatively well-armed street gang (and I am not sure that is a bad thing either).   There are exceptions to this, but they mostly proved the rule.

VII. What’s Left? 

Are you still with me here?   I am to ask you a question: we know what the social democratic left in Europe looks like (although we are seemingly unsure why it can’t seem to fight the European central bank ever), and we know what left-liberals in the US look like.  But do we actually know what’s left?   Is the metaphor of left itself so mystified outside of the current traditional paradigm of liberalism that it is almost not meaningful?

That is the question I keep asking myself lately.  It is one I honestly do not have the answer to.


4 thoughts on “If Everything is Problematic, then nothing (meaningfully) is… or what’s Left?

  1. Well, that was a thorough analysis. I appreciate the question you ended with. There is a mood right now that is hard to pinpoint. You capture much of it here.

    What’s left? What are people fighting about and for?

    In my recent foray into some activist circles, I sensed many people almost blindly lashing out at almost anyone. It was weird and irritating. I’m not sure what all the agitation is about.

    I don’t even know how to meaningfully make sense of it.

    • I have a friend who has asked me expand this into a series of essays and then a book. I have been struggling on a book request and going back and forth. I wrote this in four to five hours (hence it roughness) but this is interesting.

      • I could see an elaboration of this being useful. There is a lot that you packed into this piece. Your thoughts about the mystification of the left do get me thinking. You might be onto something with that.

  2. Pingback: On being used as an example of something you oppose | Symptomatic Commentary

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