The Real Black Pill, or, Drinking Bitter Water to Go Beyond It.

March 20th [1978]

The Left indeed lost. But the Communists have won seats. They have openly played on the victory of the Right in order seats this time, to make progress in a space that had been vacated, and where they themselves had created a void

Basically, it’s not very different from Italy. There, too, every twist and turn of events allows the Communist Party to move up a bit farther . . . but toward what? Not power: it is happy with a technocratic or managerial tip-up seat that the Christian Democracy concedes to it, without demanding anything in exchange. The Communist Party does not reach irresistibly toward power, it irresistibly occupies the space left empty in the reflux and disenchantment of the political sphere. The slow progression signals the trivialization and desertification of the political sphere. Although it’s no longer clear where the salt of the earth is, we do know that the Communist Party is the greatest desalinization enterprise. Shame on it for having helped foster, with such energy, the functional stupidity required for its extension; shame on it for having eradicated the last remains of any political standard, simply to guarantee the cancerous homeostasis of the social. Marhais’s mug is a meta-figure of stupidity and the death drive, hilarious. A histrionic mug, exacerbated by burlesque demagoguery and the blackmail of vulgarity, which everyone accepts and submits to, apparently, as initiation of the sorts into future society.

The Communist Part works towards the beatitude of historic compromise. So that all of history can end on a compromise, the whole system has to limit to zero with no violent incidents, slowly, progressively, with calculated doggedness.

The End of history and of politics could have been something else than compromise; it could hvae constituted a violent and transformative hyper-event . .

. . . But the Communist Party is there to prevent the system from dying a violent death.” — Jean Baudrillard, The Divine Left, p. 55

While in some sense, this sentiment is alien to the US, as “the Communists” or even “the Socialists” were but whimpers adjacent to the Democratic Party’s racial and labor coalition from the 1940s to 1970s. From the SPUSA’s failure to achieve relevance after the Russian and Mexican revolutions of 1917 and the election of 1918 and Deb’s imprisonment, from the CPUSA’s failure to do anything but make communists a special radical interest group in the civil rights movement, since they were effectively purged from labor by the AFL-CIO merger and by Taft-Hartley thereafter, to the emergence of the sectarian left who functioned as a radical steam valve for progressive disconnect while having party presses sell books to the very progressive fads that they mocked within the party, the US left never got a chance to fail this big. Indeed, it had done so way before the disillusionments with the results of Mai 1968 or even, in the US, the hollowing out of both the civil rights and the black power movements as US labor began funneling more and more of its functional dues to just maintaining leadership and its donations into lobbying. We never got Baudrillard’s disillusionment, or at least, we like to pretend we didn’t.

If something in the above paragraph offends you and your sensibilities, good. You may be able to object to my historiography, but one would be hard pressed to disagree with the history or results. The economic left, as much as the political left, functions as part of the buoying of the existence of the status quo in the US. The historical reasons for this are complicated and can’t be pinned down to just betrayal or to just structural impediment. Nor can the victim-blaming of “the workers’ movement was reactionary” or “the workers’ movement failed to be radical enough”: Why did it fail to be radical? What levers were really there?

After the degeneration of the 1920s in Europe and America, people saw Fordism as what was hollowing out the left, ie managerial elites and monopoly capital. Then they were blindsided by the oil shock breaking the Keynesian consensus and by declining profitability rates making prior assumptions unviable. Then neoliberalism was blamed, seemingly, reintroducing old laissez-faire economics and cutting the welfare state that, in the prior era, even most of the far left thought both disempowered the working poor through removing their agency and empowered the administrative state, buying capital time. Except, as economic historians have known for a while, neoliberalism was not really laissez-faire–as many such as Philip Mirowski have shown–it was a bipartisan consensus to restore profitability through rentier relations, fiscalization, public-private partnerships, and compelled markets. Given the mask of the old heroic bourgeoisie and a myth about even its reliance on the state, politicians and capitalists alike got the states MORE involved in markets and less involved in the deracinated social welfare programs. Between the 2008 housing crash and the COVID-19 response, the quantitive easing has made it clear: markets without risk for investors and with moral hazard for things like healthcare. Rentier relations play increasing roles in our lives. The left seems to blindsided by this too.

So we are seemingly always invested in saving the last systemic shift in capitalism. The communists trying and failing to save post-Fordism from the French right seems to be just another example. Irony upon irony, even most progressives think that post-Dengist China may save capital from itself through its state investment programs. Socialism again, the 18th and 19th century imagery of the ruthless critique of the capitalist order that emerged in Europe and its (soon to be former) colonies, is seen as the means to save it and humanize it.

So when millennial progressives hear the word “socialism” and think of Norway, Sweden, and even Canada, and the boomer anti-communists, including the leftists ones, think of China during the Great Leap Forward or USSR during either the purges or the slow decline of the late 70s and early 80s, both are deluded. Nor can we do, as the left opposition, anarchists, and left-communists have often done, of pretending that, since none of these mean a platonic form of the original 19th century goal, that this doesn’t count. “It’s just the left of capital”? Well, there is no other left and apophatic theology which substitutes something beyond the value form for the nameless attributes of the ultimate unity of God as the minimum definition of socialism makes socialism esoteric but secular mystogoguery.

Yet most of what ink is spilled in so-called socialist press and “alternative” media space–a branding I used from habit as it no longer clear what it is alternative to–wants to talk about Jimmy Dore versus the Squad. Most of the post-left wants to talk about Mark Crispin Miller and academic freedom. Most of the (formerly neoconservative) now faux-populist right complains about freedom of speech and the socialism of Kamala Harris. The actual populist and evangelical right–having moved public sentiment into the realm of paranoia and religiosity into heresy from their own religious standards–fall into QAnon and Alex Jones denials of reality. There are differences in kinds of delusion and, no, they aren’t the same, but there is delusion across the board.

In light of this, all of the commentary I do on Pop the Left, Theorizing with a Hammer, and Mortal Science, the various podcasts I work with and on, feel well, less important. However, the less important and more trend-driven it is, the more engagement there is. This doubly extends to social media–particular Twitter where meta-irony and antisocial takes are often rewarded with tons of high schoolers who are highly online sharing them without even totally realizing how much nonsense it is. Indeed, the ability to know what is sincere or meta-ironic seems often beyond them. Hate-sharing the “bad takes” spreads them further and further, incentivizing being wrong. This, by the way, is not unique to social media and never has been. But like how conspiracy theory shows about Big Foot in the 70s and 80s turned into a new and politicized form of the Satanic panic in QAnon now, concept drift and democratic media feed each other. Further, much of the liberal center’s attempt to use expertise to stomp this out overreaches and seems to vindicate the degenerative impulse. The left counter-signals to both, but ultimately sides with one impulse or the other. Furthermore, good information being paywalled while misinformation is generally plentiful and free doesn’t help. This, again, was always the case: good documentaries were arthouse productions in the 90s where one often needed not just the social but literal capital to live in an expensive city to see them, whereas Unsolved Mysteries was on basic cable.

At first this seems removed from my initial jeremiad on the left in the West above. However, when looking at some notes on kinds of engagement I get, it will become relevant. If I get mad and yell at people over getting stuck on a trend, I’ll get tons of superficial engagement. It isn’t lost on me though that getting mad at the trend gives the trend air. Criticizing pseudoscience without offering a NEW and NOBLE counter-explanation often spreads pseudoscience, and this is doubly bad with toxic counterfactuals and incoherent frameworks.

If you want to remove something from the public discourse, you don’t cancel it or even criticize it without offering an alternative. Canceling things gives it moral weight and you actually spread its voice; when the left wanted to make Richard Spencer go away, it wasn’t just punching him that did it. After all, that is STILL just symbolic if it leaves a physical bruise. It got bored. The left had bigger fish to fry, and Spencer largely took care of himself only sometimes gaining relevance in critiquing Donald Trump. The left learned a lesson there but also refused to learn it. Canceling can hurt you if you have an academic or media job where public access matters, but it doesn’t make you irrelevant. In fact, canceling and getting criticized is often an effective media strategy to gain access. In the 1960s, it was people using evangelical backlash for that, now it is deplorables fighting blue hairs. The results are similar.

You give it the silent treatment and you convince others, quietly, it isn’t worth your time. Contempt is more powerful than hate and unstated and unacknowledged contempt more powerful than mockery.

I need often to remember this myself. But there are structural reasons we have to be dishonest about this, and mine are little different. For all the complaining about the “spectacle”–the most untheorized idea ever to come out of communist critiques of modernity–complaining about the spectacle is itself number one in this grift. It calls out the illusion of spectacular and symbolic politics by also participating in it, keeping it alive.

For some self-criticism on how this works: I keep calling myself an educational entertainer. I don’t view myself as a pundit, but I admit I’m also tired of people who constantly talk about politics insisting that doing so isn’t an intervention into politics. It was false when Jon Stewart did it, and it is false when Chapo Trap House does it. It’s also false when I do it. The old claim from the 1960s that the personal was political rendered politics undifferentiated from all other forms of life. Yes, feminists did this for good reason; progressive men promoting equal rights in theory but beating their wives at home was a long and unfortunately honored tradition which more radical forms of feminism were trying to expose. But every well-meaning intervention has a shadow side, and here that shadow side was making lifestyles seem political. In a deep sense, politics, culture and economics AREN’T actually separable–they are different lens to view and manage our collective and aggregate lives, but by rendering them inseparable in focus, many things seemed more radically different than they were. By making the personal political in a time of hollowed-out individual selves, nothing became properly political. It shows in our rhetoric now where we are constantly claiming that even engaging in policy debates or aiding political candidates are not, really, political.

Often I have screamed into the void that merely inverting a bad troupe doesn’t free you from it, but often leads to a worse one.

So here’s why I am getting to the end of my rope as a pundit who doesn’t really want to be one: I keep saying we need to offer a viable alternative to the talking points of the left and quit trying to defend a debate that is set up for multiple sides to draw bad conclusions. But we can’t easily do this because it doesn’t get engagement. People LIKE the horserace, and they like the idea that engagement with fictions they make of real people (celebrity and micro-celebrity media personalities) is both read as a way to gain access to power and a way to “be honest” about one’s (lack of) role in it. Trust me–working for Zero, I see this. Mortal Science is a better podcast of what I aim to do. It necessarily has a more limited audience. Like right now, it has a few orders of magnitude smaller audience than Pop the Left or Theorizing with a Hammer. Pop the Left is good but we still do left ambulance-chasing despite our commitment not to. Why? We need views and clicks or it doesn’t matter. Mortal Science’s agenda is not set by clicks at all, but it is necessarily a disillusioning and largely under-engaged with affair.

Furthermore, let’s be honest for a second. The “alternative” media’s populist narrative about Patreon and what not leading to a more “authentic” left is a myth. There is a reason why the Brooklyn and Berkley left defined podcasting once Patreon weakened NPR’s hold on pushing its radio shows into podcast form. It’s a money-making media sphere and that is where the money is. No, not the kind of money you need for an old capital-intensive media set, but that has since changed with technology. Power law still applies. You need capital, either cultural or, well, real to expand capital. True word of mouth takes forever. You need to invest in advertising and relaunch campaigns. A part of the Dirtbag Left had money prior to raking in thousands a month on Patreon, and many had media access way, way before they broke out in podcast land. Their obsession with political media spheres and mocking it made it abundantly clear. I didn’t know or care about Ben Shapiro until new media started mocking him on the left. This becomes a mutually constitutive identity, and one that is still dominated by Ivy Leaguers, even if they aren’t WASPs anymore (on either political side, actually).

I still have rely on rich and connected friends to land interviews outside of the normal left book-tour circuit or left professional activist circuit, and if you haven’t noticed that some of your favorite “marginal voice” podcasters and activists have Ivy League degrees, you’re a fool. It need it too; for all our criticisms of the “elites” and their myth of meritocracy, we are always excepting what we like.

I was friends with a working-class dude who was brilliant and is now a journalist, who was let into Harvard Divinity School to work on Buddhism. He does the work, so this wasn’t a silver spoon placed into his mouth, but he knows that his access was not from primary merit. It was being given access to Harvard and thus gained in an entirely unrelated field from what he worked in, and then he would freelance for things like Teen Vogue. Did he earn his way in? Or was he there to assuage some elite conscience? Well, if you believe that meritocracy is a sham, then you can but draw conclusions closer to the second. Even with an editor, I don’t have that access. I have helped people get that access and, yes, I am an aphasiac and, yes, I am aggressive, but that isn’t the primary reason why. I am not bitter about this either. If I got in that deep, like a few of my friends from similar backgrounds have and are, I would be even more limited in what I say. Instead being frustrated about having to talk about Jimmy Dore versus the Squad two minutes hate (on both sides), I would have to pick how I defended our continued relationship with a party that doesn’t deliver shit and hasn’t since the 1930s.

As it is, I get to get play a role and an important one which is good for a guy from a central GA working class background with a communication disability (which I don’t generally play up). In fact, even the regional access to capital is often not dealt with: being poor but promising in a major city affords more access to ways out of poverty than being so in central GA. In central GA, there isn’t the wealth or the guilt for such noblesse oblige from our haute bourgeois oligarchs or their well-invested middle managers.

This brings me to another point, which you would know if you listen to my podcasts, but not if you just read this: my criticism of things like the PMC thesis isn’t to dismiss it. It’ss actually SUPER important, but because of that, I want to be coherent and watertight. The above is WHY it is super-important. Incoherent frameworks are easily attacked and legitimately so, but there is sociological reality to the fact that a precarious strata of professionals and their children are interested in representing leftist interests instead of liberal ones. Furthermore, many do misrepresent their origins. “Common podcasters” and “politicians with working class backgrounds” (because they had to do the common middle-class thing and take a gig during college) with Ivy League credentials and rich, connected patrons will fool you. If you are mad at Jack Vance for hiding how he broke out of the working class (good luck in a military gig, access to a state senator who helped him get into good schools in addition to having the grades) then you have to be mad at people like AOC who had the help of Ted Kennedy for pretending to be Jenny from the Block. It is not to say that AOC didn’t earn her position; it isn’t all that relevant. Even with hard work, you need access and ways to get it. I am not mad about it; I realize this is how this works, but I am not going to lie to you about it.

I also know that most people who “earn” their way up to have to pick up these narratives to maintain themselves. They really believe them because that is a circle of exposure, but they also NEED to believe them to continue to climb up. You don’t need to believe them though if you don’t have that access. You don’t need to think you have an actual relationship with these people or that they represent you. “It’s good to have people to project possibility unto.” True, but it also a way to hide that YOU still don’t really have that possibility.

Two generations ago–in the time of better politicians and better elites—we had congresspeople without degrees or without being billionaires. Good luck with that now. Good luck even getting a job at a think-tank from a state school, even if you have perfect scores and can prove yourself smarter than well-connected Ivy Leaguers. Cultural capital works this way. Look at “pragmatism”. Even the far left screams “pragmatism” when it fails to deliver, whether it was with the Five-Year Plan or with the Democrats. Fine, but don’t pretend to be investing in ruthless criticism if that all exists. You are very much thinking you can tame the dragon without any evidence that it’s likely. Thus, ultimately, to try to save this possibility, the most radical-seeming critics of society actually are protecting elements of the status quo.

This is the necessary black pill to swallow in order not to give up on change. It is the bitter water you must drink not to die of thirst, hoping for there to be sweet water at the mirage in the distance. It means you have to give away something to which you have invested a considerable amount of your time and identity into. Just admit it to yourself, and then you may be able to make a change, or, at least, if not, not be invested in people–despite even their real intentions–not doing so.

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