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The phony left

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This post draws its immediate inspiration from Simon’s and Scott’s discussions of Cornel West’s criticisms of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and less immediately from many other posts by my co-bloggers and others discussing various forms of apparently self-sabotaging leftist political rhetoric and action. It is an invitation to discuss the following proposition: a great deal of the supposed political left in the United States in the age of Trump is made up of people who don’t actually believe what they claim to believe. It takes as its starting point this quote from an essay Orwell published on the eve of World War II:

In a prosperous country, above all in an imperialist country, left­wing politics are always partly humbug. There can be no real reconstruction that would not lead to at least a temporary drop in the English standard of life, which is another way of saying that the majority of left-wing politicians and publicists are people who earn their living by demanding something that they don’t genuinely want.

By “the left” I don’t mean anything analytically precise, but rather intend to signify that part of the American body politic which is at least rhetorically committed to something between a serious amelioration and a total destruction of existing social hierarchies, including, but not limited to, those based on class, race, and gender.

The phony left is made up of people who claim to want to see something like this, but in fact don’t.

Here I’m not speaking of matters of tactical disagreement, but of sincere — or insincere as the case may be — moral and political commitment. For example, a certain type of leftist may claim to believe in a heighten the contradictions approach to politics, in which the election of a moderate Democrat like Hillary Clinton is actually worse, in the long run, for bringing about a significantly more just society than the election of an authoritarian proto-fascist such as Trump. This belief is in my view dangerously wrongheaded, but as long as it is sincerely held, the believer isn’t part of the phony left.

The phony left, rather, consists of people who don’t actually want American society to become significantly more egalitarian, but merely say they do. Who makes up the phony left?* Here are a few broad initial categories:

(1) Privileged people who don’t actually want to surrender much if any of their privilege. These are people who are OK with, for example, paying a slightly higher marginal income tax rate, but who would view any serious proposal to achieve, say, Scandinavian levels of relative income inequality with horror, let alone any attempt (basically unimaginable under current political conditions) to create an even loosely egalitarian economic system.

It also includes men who don’t actually want anything even vaguely resembling gender equality, white people who don’t want anything vaguely resembling racial equality etc.

A huge number of putative leftists fall into the category, and indeed it’s difficult for any privileged person, and especially any highly privileged person — such as myself for example, even though I’m only sort of or quasi-white and getting less so every day in our merry little white nationalist regime — to know whether he or she would really support any genuinely radical steps toward social equality, given that such steps would surely have painful (at least in the short term) effects on him or her.

Again, referencing myself, in theory I’m in favor of tenured law professors making far less money than they currently make, and doing far more work of various unpleasant sorts than they are currently required to do. In practice, would I support such changes if they were (as they currently are not) looking like imminent possibilities? I hope I would, but nothing is easier than advocating altruistic reforms that there is no clear and present danger will actually take place.

(2) People who would rather see their pessimism confirmed than see their putative desires come true. A certain type of leftist — usually a man — positively revels in his status as a social loser, and on some probably neurotic level doesn’t want to give this status up. He would, in short, rather be proven right that the world is rigged against people like him than see that world change in ways that would make people like him less likely to end up as “failsons,” to use the neologism of the moment. The so-called “dirtbag left” is home to a lot of these types, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t also feature lots of genuinely sincere leftists.

An analogy can be made here to a certain type of sports fan, who at some point becomes so enamored of his conviction that the head coach is useless, the management is utterly incompetent, etc., that he actually on some level roots for “his” team to lose, because he enjoys being able to claim he was right more than he enjoys the vicarious victories that are supposed to define his status as a fan of his team.

(3) People who prefer maintaining what they see as their moral purity to actually improving the world at the margin. At bottom these people fundamentally hate politics, because politics always involve serious moral compromise, and they value maintaining the theoretical purity of their moral commitments over the practical advancement of their supposed desires.

Naturally there is some overlap between these categories, while many other subtypes could be added to this very preliminary list. (Again, this post is meant as merely a starting point for a discussion, not as a definitive typology).

In any event, in an age of a resurgent radical right wing in both America and much of the rest of the world, the prevalence of the phony left in its various guises is a serious barrier to political and social progress.

*I’m excluding the possibly politically significant but not very intellectually interesting category of conscious right-wing saboteurs posting as leftists, i.e., ratfuckers, to use G. Gordon Liddy’s delicate self-description.

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