Contagion and Rot: Or, why might this new round of “post-left” politics be increasingly popular.

“…we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives.”

― Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition

Let’s ask ourselves, for once, why the post-left is becoming popular. I made a dig at it earlier around Mark Crispin Miller, but really, if we are honest, that is a minor offense. Yes, most of the people criticizing the Professional-Managerial character of the left see themselves as within the left or as post-left, despite some having immigrant or working class origins, are of the strata of society they complain about. If we are honest, though, this is a bit of a distraction. Not only does it not matter who they are for their observations to be true, it also doesn’t even matter if the observations are made in bad faith if we are looking into their truth value.

Let’s look at Carl Beijer’s engagement with this iteration of the concept. Some of the reasons the post-left have become popular are more obvious from attempts to criticism them than from themselves. He makes three critiques and all are somewhat superficially true but none of them land.

They rhetorically align themselves with Marx. This doesn’t mean that they are actually operating within the framework of Marxism as understood by Marxists for nearly two centuries: on the contrary, their analysis departs from orthodox Marxism on a regular basis. And sometimes they’ll acknowledge this. But in sharp contrast to various “right populist” and “independent” pundits who position themselves against Marx, Post Leftists typically position themselves as sympathetic — or even as the only true Marxists.

Out of the gate, we see an immediate problem. The implication is that post-leftists are operating in bad faith, which would be clearer if “orthodox” Marxism had any definition here. But it doesn’t, and it’s hard to know who this particular criticism doesn’t apply to. Xi defenders make arguments outside of “traditional” Marxism in defense of the continued use of private markets merely tamed by the party. Union skeptics have Lenin’s denouncements of trade-union consciousness to appeal to. Anti-statists have Marx’s and Engel’s critiques of Lasalle. Trotskyists will argue forever over what kind of degeneration the Soviet Union is given towards. All make claims to be “true” Marxists, and many, the only true Marxists. This a sign of an inert political program and a degenerated research program. It is easy for anyone to make this rhetorical move because nearly everyone does.

So this critique of the current round of the post-left doesn’t hit. What is the orthodoxy they’re degenerating from? This isn’t a new problem either, nor are the post-leftists the only people within Marxism making similar points. Barbara Ehrenreich, not Michael Lind, developed the PMC thesis and Michael Lind has never pretended to be a Marxist. Erik Olin Wright before Ehrenreich was trying to do objective sociological work on “working class” stratification and division and the kinds of cartelization, skill rents, and opportunity capture as well as regional and sectional divisions that stratified the working class. Michael Tracey and Jimmy Dore are Generation X contrarians, and they also don’t make appeals to be dyed-in-the-wool Marxists but would be implicated here. The New Left as well as communization theorists have pointed out going back to the middle of the 20th century that the working class had different social agendas than often ascribed to it by progressives and populists and had since the 1920s. What Marxist orthodoxy is going to get you out of this problem? It is nowhere to found, and not all the people here are even claiming allegiance to Marxism.

Beijer’s next critique does actually land, but is self-defeating for a socialist:

Their politics are overtly anti-left, and often overtly (or de facto) Republican. The Post Left is openly hostile to various factions that they lump together as “the left” — not just Democrats and liberals, but radical groups like anarchists and socialists as well. Rhetorically they adopt the bog-standard positioning of the self-identified independent: they are uniquely free-thinking equal-opportunity offenders who operate outside of ideological / partisan boundaries. But like most self-identified independents, their actual ideological, political, and even cultural commitments map quite clearly onto the usual camps and divisions.

This is true. Listening to Angela Nagle talk about the left’s war on beauty and seeing her decontextualize and mangle Marx quotes to get closer to Tucker Carlson indicates this. These are standard talking points, but why can someone like Nagle still have some legitimacy in doing this? Why do Bari Weiss and Red Scare miss that Christopher Lasch spent most of his early career criticizing populism, but they love “The Revolt of the Elites”, even though they read it without the context of Lasch’s prior criticism and ignore his lifelong ambivalence about populist forces? It is because it aligns to centrist and center-right critiques. However, this cuts back on left critics of this current post-left: if you scratch them, are they not just progressive Democrats? Aren’t their neo-Keynesian readings of the New Deal only considered socialism because of years and years of right-wing attacks hollowing out the meaning of socialism? Increasingly, it looks like progressivism for a lot of the media left got rebranded as Democratic Socialism and so the Overton window moved not on policy but only pink-branding. If most independents are really centrists who are in denial for reasons of self-identity, then likely most socialists are also merely progressive Democrats who are in denial for social branding reasons. You can’t cite research from 1992 before the socialist resurgence on independent voters and not realize it hits socialists without losing some creditability. In fact, Beijer slyly acknowledges this in his conclusion.

Beijer’s last criticism isn’t one and he acknowledges this: they are a media clique like any other media clique. They may be in denial about this (and many leftists who do “media” organizing are also in denial about this), but it shows something. Beijer’s conclusion is fairly right on, but doesn’t really follow from his first two criticisms:

To place this in a broader context: the red scare taboos that effectively exiled the Marxist tradition from American discourse have significantly eroded in recent years. Consequentially, while the two parties of capital remain overwhelmingly hostile towards Marxist thought, they have nevertheless gained a marginal stake in pandering — at least superficially — to voters who are sympathetic to it. This is why we have what socialists often call “sheepdog” media: a small boutique market of figures and publications who, speaking the language of Marxism, often play the role of herding people back into the Democratic Party.

For obvious historical and cultural reasons, we still do not have a similar industry of Republican sheepdogs. The base of voters and customers it would pander to is just too microscopic. There is, however, a significant market for “right populists” who are willing to say nice things about blue collar workers, complain about elites, and inevitably sigh that it turns out Republicans are the lesser-evil once again. And there is also, of course, a handful of activist oligarchs who are happy to pour insane amounts of dark money into media operations that microtarget niches like this. We saw this with astroturf groups like The Tea Party, and we see it today in media projects like The Federalist and American Affairs.

Now, I have also been confused why even Marxists acknowledge that the Tea Party was astroturfed as even it’s 2007 founders felt that they were marginalized by the more populist and, frankly, incoherent parts of the GOP, but ignore that this also applies to leftist groups who are funded by NGO money, rich patrons, or media access. That said, most left organizing groups don’t get that far and more socially broad ones have a harder time with money corruption because they are more horizontally-based. These organizations, however, are rarely explicitly socialist or Marxist though, and tend to be local advocacy groups.

Furthermore, this functional reading makes a pretty big misstep:

These oligarchs and their “right populist” operations have been exerting their gravity on the Post Left. Their apparatchiks have already begun using their dark-money funded platforms to host and promote them. And the Post Left — particularly those with media ventures — have eagerly returned the favor, showering figures from Tucker Carlson to Chris Buskirk with constant promotion and praise. Too reactionary for left media and too mediocre for the right, the Post Left is camped out in the uncompetitive niche market of Republican Marxism, pandering to the right populists for scraps of clout and patiently hoping for a sponsor to call their own.

This doesn’t entirely seem to be true. Looking at Patreon stats, many of these post-left podcasts do as well as middle-tier leftist ones, sheepdog or not. Now, if you think I’m panning Beijer, you are wrong. His analysis of class voting patterns in 2020 election is actually really good. Furthermore, he wrote a good understanding of the liberal use of identitarian reductionism to dismiss even intersectional uses of class. However, that is the kind of piece that the wrong internet mood can get you cast into the “post-left” for really easily.

Indeed, in terms of the actual function of a lot of the sheepdog “left”, Beijer and I could easily be seen as agreeing with the post-left on the problems of managerial uses of critical race theory to silence critics of the Democratic Party, or the fact that a lot of the media left ecosphere has largely kept people in the Democratic Party. I suspect Beijer would disagree with my opinions on the limitations of Bernie Sanders, but still, we all knew what the problem is: politicians both Democratic and Republican have discovered niches for radical chic, again. For someone like Beijer and myself, the move is distancing ourselves from the post-left because our own criticisms of most of the liberal left actually rhyme with post-left. So drawing distinctions seems important; after all, we don’t think we marginalize “marginal voices” or support nationalism as a means of reshoring jobs because we don’t even think this is possible.

Yet, this hasn’t answered why the popularity of the post-left seems to be gaining some steam, and it can’t all be explained by astroturfing either. Chapo Trap House and the Red Scare podcasts were products of the same initial milieu. The Bellows were once endorsed by the likes of Bhaskar Sunkara and my pal, the late Michael Brooks, even if neither would do so now. The fact that despite branding and moral arguments to the contrary, most of the left can’t transcend national organization as its dominant mode makes the post-left seem more honest even when specific members are not being so. The fact that the strategy of patience has moved from patience on revolution to patience on reform to patience of there being any viable strategy left of Nancy Pelosi. This makes the left seems like grifters and makes the post-left look good, but it also makes it seem like any criticism of the status quo that denies immediate hope is actually a move right. This is sad because my experience with left-wing critics of the left generally are: if they don’t have a lot of integrity, more than what we normally require of people with a political agenda, they will move right from sheer desperation in the same way many mutual aid groups become NGOs and many leftist papers become progressive magazines shilling for the Democrats. It isn’t just bad faith–it is a structural lack of options. To get beyond that, and I do think that we can, one has to look at how the post-left developed any popularity. This isn’t the first time a post-left has happened: in the 1990s, post-left anarchism; in the 1970s, communitarianism and third-way politics; in the 1950s, left communism as going beyond the “left of capital.” These different movements have had various different effect sizes; the 1990s and 1950s variants mostly not mattering much at all ultimately, but the 1970s versions had large effects.

In each of these cases, what remains is a view of the left as failing to really offer an alternative to the mainstream of society or, at least, one that many people would find attractive. Post-leftism emerges when the left seems stultified. The problem isn’t just that it may tend towards right-wing grifting over the time, the problem is almost always that the reason why it developed in the first place is real and unanswered. If there are mass politics in the US right now, they aren’t in Brooklyn, Berkeley, or Portland–and they aren’t on Twitter. It is in the industrial urban Midwest and South, and those people are running out of time and largely not talked about on the left. How is it air went to Portland and not rent-strikes in the Midwest? Perhaps it is easy to understand why, increasingly, people are turning their backs on the left in favor of “real Marxism”. If anything, the main sin of the post-left is romanticizing the collective image of the working class industrial worker and the high point of the labor movement as the manifestation of the “real working class left.” That wasn’t all that real even in Europe. Labor politics were not dominated by the membership of unions for more than two generations pretty much anywhere in the developed world. In some ways, the post-left’s popularity and its error lies in the fact that, instead of looking at the material reality of working class lives, we have heroically romanticized it. It easy for a bad actor to spin that left or right. The more interesting thing is why it has appeal. For good or ill, studying the left-wing critics of the left in the West explains more about the limits of the left’s own narrative of material appeal than studying the left itself will ever do.

2 thoughts on “Contagion and Rot: Or, why might this new round of “post-left” politics be increasingly popular.

  1. I think this analysis misunderstands – my argument is not that each of these are unique features of the Post Left, but rather that the Post Left uniquely shares *all* of these features. I don’t know who else you could say that for. And once one gets that the Post Left is the group that shares *all* of these features, their appeal becomes obvious: they’re the only people who are really pushing GOP politics with Marxist rhetoric. That’s a small niche market, but it’s one that no one else is competing in.

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