Why Are Leftists Freaks?
by Douglas Lain
The difficulty with Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey’s essay "First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The Collapse of the Sanders Campaign and The 'Fusionist' Left" is that it is too gentle with the left that it criticizes and leaves too many of the left’s assumptions in place. For example, their critique of David Sirota’s claim that “A corporate-owned political system has almost never allowed an existential threat to corporate power to be elected president” challenges neither the idea that Sanders represented an “existential threat to corporate power” (he didn’t) nor the idea that the struggle for socialism should be understood as a struggle against corporatism as opposed to capitalism.
They are also too quick to celebrate the Social Democratic parties that have succeeded in winning elections. While it’s true that, in Denmark and Ireland, there have been short term victories for social democrats, this ignores the low probability that these parties will succeed whilst in power. They ignore how the political-economic context of the present will make it more and more difficult for social democratic reforms to hold. For example, Denmark’s Social Democrats want to expand welfare spending and decrease inequality, but the conditions in the global economy are such that they are presiding over an era where there is an increase in unemployment and a massive contraction in GDP. While it’s likely that Denmark will suffer less than many countries in Europe, if the EU cracks up completely and production slows generally, half of the Danish economy will be threatened when exports and imports dry up.
Nagle and Tracey claim that the American left’s refusal to take up socially conservative positions limited the appeal of their platform and their candidate. This may be true, but what we should also consider is how the question of cultural values, on both sides, obscures the existing right/left consensus. That is the shared assumption that capitalism can never be overcome defines the politics of the Danish Social Democrats, the Sinn Fein party, Corbyn’s Labour party, both the Biden and Sanders wing of the democratic party, Boris Johnson’s Conservative party, and so on, and so on… Could it be that the working class didn’t turn out for Sanders in the numbers necessary to assure his victory not because they were alienated by his position on transwomen, not because they were put off by the strange internal culture of the DSA with its never-ending displays of virtue and obsession with oppressed identities, but rather because they weren’t convinced that the democratic socialists could make good on their promises?
While it’s true that the more radical elements in the Sanders coalition have an inkling of the immensity of task that the left is charged with, even they cannot quite imagine a world based on socialist relations. For instance, in an essay entitled “Social Democracy is Good. But Not Good Enough” Joesph M. Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara wrote that “history shows us that achieving a stable welfare state while leaving capital’s power over the economy largely intact is itself far from viable. Even if we wanted to stop at socialism within capitalism, it’s not clear that we could.” But they went on to suggest that moving beyond social democracy would involve “pushing back against capital’s power to withhold investment” whereas, in reality, there is no way to compel investment and ensure profitability through the use of political power. The problems that arise from a lack of or decline in profitability cannot be overcome, not even with the use of force, unless that force first devalues enough capital to allow for reinvestment.
What Michael Tracey and Angela Nagle miss is that it isn’t this current left, or just the American or Anglophone left, that has a problem attracting working-class support, but in fact this difficulty with the proletariat has been the most prominent difficulty for socialists since at least the end of WW2 or maybe even, with some periodic exceptions, since the writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.
A good example of the difficulty that the proletariat presents to the left can be found in Horkheimer’s 1943 essay “On the Sociology of Class Relations”. Written while Horkheimer was living in exile during the second World War, at a time when the failure of the German Revolution of 1918 and 1919 was as memorable as Back to the Future 2 and the fall of the Berlin wall are to us, Horkheimer was convinced that the capitalist system had overcome its core contradictions and that the struggle for socialism had, at least for a time, ended. Not quite the conservative Hegelian that Fukuyama was after the end of the cold war, he nonetheless believed that he’d reached the end of history. Why? Because the working classes could no longer be relied upon to act in the interest of socialism, or in their true interests.
He wrote that, while for Marx, “the workers were the masses of all exploited people in industrialist society who, in spite of all the minor differences in their fate, each of them, on the whole, had the same outlook on life: the periods of employment would become shorter, the pressure of the unemployed on the wages grow stronger, the misery, in the midst of an ever wealthier society, become unbearable.”
This is a fair enough reading of Marx’s perspective on the situation the working class would find themselves in, but it is worth recalling that while Marx did believe that the capitalism would go into more and more severe crises and that this would drive worker and capitalist into conflict over wages, over the length of the working day, over job safety and job security, and over many other things as well, he did not argue that the operations of the capitalist system were simple. Rather, for every particular route into decline and crisis, there is a countervailing tendency that can prolong, put off, and even temporarily overcome it. The general tendency of decline and crisis persists, however. Worse, an economic crisis is itself a way for capitalism to overcome its contradictions as the destruction of constant capital (machinery, buildings, raw materials, and money) cheapen investment enough to spur new capitalists on. Each depression can potentially restart a new cycle of booms and busts until the deep crisis comes again.
There never are any guarantees, but reading Horkheimer’s critique of consumer society today it both seems culturally relevant and utterly fraudulent on the economic and political level. Sure, we’re all immature now, and narcissistic, but when push came to shove Pollock and Horkheimer misunderstood the base of society and overestimated the power of the State. It wasn’t true that state monopolies could overcome the contradictions that arise out of the production of value and market competition forever. Further, consumerism shouldn’t have been unexpected nor should the possibility of a general increase in real wealth under capitalism. It was always the case that the cheapening of commodities through the mass production of goods could lead both to an increase in the real wealth that constituted subsistence even as the portion of abstract wealth that went to the worker declined.
Putting the question of the proletariat in the context of the defeat of the Bernie Sanders campaign, we can all witness the current social-democratic left wrestle with the failure of the left to connect to the proletariat or, put differently, the proletariat’s failure to meet the socialist left. The thinking of Matt Christman is, I think, a representative example. In any case, it’s an example of we can take up. Matt has been live-streaming his process and in recent weeks he’s been asked about the problem of revisionism in Marxist thought. As open as he’s trying to be, Christman dismissed the question as too esoteric, too irrelevant, and as ultimately one that is about developing a fantasy version of one’s self, about trying to develop your brand in a world where everyone is involved in the racket of selling themselves online. Christman’s thinking is colored by the theoretical assumptions of the socialisms of the past and frames these questions about Marx as questions of consciousness and the effects of consumerism on that consciousness.
However, it seems to me that this question of revisionism is of significance because it arose in a situation much like this one. It took shape after the proletariat failed to participate in the socialist project to transform society despite the Long Depression in the late 19th century. The idea was that the contradictions inherent in capitalism would immiserate the workers of the world and move them to revolution. Instead, the attempts at revolution were localized failures, and capitalist enterprises managed to regain their footing and find ways to profitably expand again after depressions and recessions.
These objections to Marxist orthodoxy from revisionist Marxists were precisely the same complaints as those leveled by Horkheimer in 1943. The workers’ wealth was increasing not declining, and the workers were, in turn, aligning with competing industries and nations. The workers themselves were fragmenting into sectors or rackets and unable to take up a universal struggle. Finally, the rate of profitability was increasing and not declining.
But, both Bernstein and Horkheimer failed to see how their historical moment arose and understand social reality as something that was moving and changing.
The problem that’s left for would-be revolutionaries has to be reframed. The problem is not that consumerism has created a conservative working-class that is fragmented and in competition with other workers and that will never be brought into an existential crisis by the contradictions of capitalism, but rather that when workers fail to respond to an existential crisis in self-defense, Capitalism proves to be able to resolve its on contradictions. In a sense, human sacrifice does work, in the short term anyhow.
At the end of Nagle and Michael Tracey’s essay on the Sanders campaign they claim that the left-wing in America is willing to self-annihilate in order to save liberalism. It seems that the problem for the left is that the proletariat are sometimes willing to self-annihilate in order to save capitalism. This sort of sacrifice is easier to accomplish than the kind that leads to self-transformation.
If capitalism can correct itself through a crisis it’s possible that the working class could just as easily reconcile with their own mortality and with capitalism more easily than they could realize the need for socialism.
To me, he represents the revolutionary left in all its weakness. A revolutionary left that was described in a recent volume of the radical publication End Notes as groups of freaks and deviants who, for personal and particular reasons, end up embracing radical theory in order to compensate for our own failure to succeed in society. What I would point out is that, this freakishness could be, in times of crisis a universal position. That is, when a crisis hits the proletariat itself becomes freakish and even more fragmented, but it is only through the recognition and acceptance of that freakishness in each other that we might be able to come together. It is only by understanding the errors that have brought us here, that we can ever overcome history.
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