Strange Moralism: Crooked Timber and Systemic Problems

Liberal and even Marxist puritanism has always struck me as missing some fundamental points:  a call-out on a bigot makes some rational sense as a self-protective measure. It doesn’t change them. . It distances one from a person who is going to harm you, or who you can’t handle.  That said, this is more a psychological than politically effective move. A call-out–not a reprimand or a pointing out, but a public shaming–on being “problematic,” however, is corrosive to political and social cohension, although this in and of itself may be the point, and it is absolutely not instructive.   It can become the tar-and-feather session that largely becomes ego-affirm and performative.  This can be agitprop, prior to social media, and in a movement of specific struggle, but as a generic approach to politics, it seems to less than useless.

The problem beyond the obvious is that it accepts people where they are as if there were some inner-social core that was not itself limiting.  The alienated, the oppressed, the explioted motives, psychologies, limitations are just as distorted by their treatment as those in the existing system who benefit from it, or at minimum, can be blind to it.  Both would change in the process of changing larger social context, so ego reaffirming may be put people in an impossible place.  In short, system problems are systemic, they demand all individuals involve to change for things to be fixed.

The bizzaroland Kantianism involved tends to intense imposition of moral intentions on others with being totally utilitarian with ones own morality.  What Carl Schmitt called the state of exception of the sovereign, except since the parties involved are marginalized, so a state of exception largely doesn’t matter in a political sense but in a social sense.  While the separation of the political and social are not discrete spheres of experience, the formality of the way power works is vastly different.   Social spheres function on cultural capital–manifested materially through the ability to the time to learn the right words, the ability to afford the clothes that signify group belonging, etc.  Bordieu, who I think may be the most clear writer on the topic without getting into vaguer notions of discourse theory, makes this clear: this is our habitus, and explains sub-cultures, and sub-cultures generally have economic limitations. Focusing on the social here can lead two unuseful things, the above moralism, or believing consumer choices are the primary determinant of an identity.

This primary misunderstanding of the way structures work often lead to very, very naive things coming from the mouths of left-liberals.  Take this article, “How I Tried to Quit the Liberal Guilt Machine And Failed,” where a woman seems to realize that her moral conception of the world leads her to misunderstand conservatives in the UK:

What surprised me most was how they really didn’t believe most of the things liberals accuse them of believing. Almost none of them had a delusional belief in their own ability to ‘work hard’, nor did they think people who are struggling deserved their fate for being lazy. I think those arguments are ex post facto justifications, that some conservatives respond with after they’ve been accused of being callous. The flow of logic starts by wanting less government interference, and ends by not objecting to the consequences of that. It’s not meanness at all, but rather denial. I think they felt more responsible for social ills than liberals, but just chose not to face them. I was also surprised to realize that they weren’t racist, homophobic, sexist bigots, no more than my liberal friends. I realized that social conservatism was dead or dying, which made ‘libertarian’ just a euphemism for conservative.

Now, as a person who accidentally ended up on the right for a while, but who has always thought mainstream conservatives and libertarians were in the main pawns to larger powers, I still find this so incredibly naive.  I have often said I don’t want someone fighting on my side because of ideological or morality purity–that is an idea, it shifts in the wind, and that person could easily be at my throat a few years hence.  I would rather people but there because their back was against the wall or someone they cared about had their back against the wall.  I don’t wish that on anybody, but those people fight because they have to not because of idealized notions of reality. So the idea that one can just flip comes from the same problem.

I grew up in the deep South, so undoubtly I know conservatives.  Most don’t really trust Republicans or Tories either.  Most are religious, or the secular children of the religious (increasely the latter now).  Most conservatievs, frankly, are yesterday’s liberals or politicized and alieneated religious.  A very large amount of them coming from essentially the working class–particularly those outside of manufacturing.  Much more than my experience most of the radicals I know, and the radicals I do know from the working class tend to be much more cynical and yet less resentful than a lot of the downwardly mobile graduate student radicals I have met.   The class and region divide here works against most leftist ideas while also proving the basic premise that our social context, if not determining us, at least limits us so significantly, that it becomes very easy to guess what someone believes if you know where they are from, if their parents were religious, and if their social mobility was slightly up or slightly down.

So the idea that one just quits the “left-wing guilt machine” by joining its opposite seems like a something prompted from frustration.  Many people, if not most, give burned out by the left-wing guilt machine, this is why most activists one meets are under-30 or over-55, part of that is generational, but a large part of it is the burn-out isn’t something that a person with children can maintain, particularly with the demands of most non-academic or media labor.  The problem is that the gult-machine confuses systemic and personal, social and political spheres and tactics. It is not that the “other side” is right.

But what is the lesson learned:

The cure came when I visited my favourite city in the world, San Francisco. I didn’t feel like a villain anymore, because instead of being labelled by some bizarre insult inspired by the British class system, I was called a ‘queer, polyamorous person of color’. I felt what I’d liked about being a liberal all over again, that warm optimism for a better future. Eager to return, I asked some of my friends, whether thinking about this justice stuff made them feel guilty, and the answer was almost unanimously no. You see, I’d been doing liberalism wrong. You’re not supposed to feel personally responsible for injustice, you’re supposed to feel smug that you’re aware of the injustice and conservatives aren’t. It’s meant to make you feel better.

Replacing that moralism with smugness. Visiting an onclave of people who agree with you.  Both of my two closest friends live in liberal onclaves like this, one in the Bay Area.  They are also the most expensive places to live in the world right now.  This affirmation in individuals is just as much in denial as the conservatism whose denial is obvious to them.   Furthermore, it proves my point, moving to an onclave where people accept your biases gives you a pass, you feel good about your secret knowledge. Justice Gnosticism, which rhythms a lot with justice narcistism.

What do we learn?  The state of exception in the social sphere helps the status quo to flight: that status quo flies with a left-wing and right-wing, contently separated and squarely smug together.


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