politics as politics
I used to write about atheism, but I gave it up.
Years ago I wrote a series of arguments that have become much more common since. I said that I was an atheist but that I felt alienated from the aggressive, Richard Dawkins-style atheists in our culture. I said that I wanted religion out of politics and government but that I was otherwise uninterested in trying to convince anyone to lose faith in God. And people liked that.
Some people who liked it were Christians. Some even said, “that’s very Christian of you.” Someone once approvingly said I was more Christian than most Christians he knew. Maybe, in some deeply metaphorical way, I was “Christian.” But if so I was Christian in the manner of someone who didn’t believe in God and who explicitly rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ — that is to say, not very Christian at all. The essential question of religion and atheism is whether or not there’s a god. That’s not the only question. I thought then, and I think now, that being friendly and tolerant and curious towards religious people is important. But the basic question is still, “is there a god?,” and as an atheist, the answer is no, and that is the most important possible dynamic between me and those Christians. However happy I am to break bread with them.
Over time, things changed. The arguments I made against angry atheists, once provocative, became commonplace. Progressive spaces became filled with arguments similar to the one that I had once imagined to be contrarian. Meanwhile I had moved to Indiana and was suddenly steeped in a culture rife with conservative Christians. I found myself more and more annoyed by secular liberal who would say “angry atheists are just as bad as conservative Christians!” Because that isn’t true. Angry atheists are annoying; conservative Christians are an organized and powerful political bloc that has powered some of the worst conditions in American political life in years. Those things are not the same. But angry atheists exist in the discursive space of those liberals, and conservative Christians do not, and so those arguments become attractive. Because one must define him or herself in a social context through contrast with others, and in the progressive world there is more to gained by contrasting yourself with a follower of Sam Harris than with a follower of Rick Warren. But like those Christians who wanted to see Christianity in me, these secular liberals have failed to understand that the most important question, when it comes to religion, is whether God is real or not. And on that question, they align with the angry atheists, not the decent religious people they’re projecting. That has to come first or the religious question itself has no meaning.
I think about that a lot when I write something that conservatives enjoy. They, and some liberals too, make the same error as the Christians who find my atheism Christian and the secular progressives who call atheism worse.
I wrote this thing about, among other things, the social dynamics in left spaces. Because it criticized the left, as my work often does, some leftists derided it, as they often do. And they said, as they often do, that I was on my way to becoming a conservative. Because that piece criticized the left, as my work often does, some conservatives praised it, as they often do. And they said, as they often do, that I was on my way to becoming a conservative.
But this is wrong. Politics is about policy. Politics is about a vision of the world we have and the better world we want. My vision is of a socialist world, a world of summative equality. I ask my left and liberal critics, what changes in the policies I support would make you conclude that I’m becoming a conservative? How have my ideas for how the world should be changed, in a way that would support calling me a conservative? There’s no answer. When I speak out in defense of proceduralism, when I advocate for civil liberties, leftists call me a liberal. But civil liberties have been a part of left identity since before those leftists were born. And more: a liberal is someone who wants to build a welfare state within capitalism. I want to replace capitalism with socialism. Therefore the insult “liberal” doesn’t make sense. It can only make sense for those who see politics as a set of vague social groupings without any coherent or meaningful substance beneath them.
My essay on the backchannel was about this tendency, in part — how the left has evacuated its self-definition of actual politics. The conservatives who praise me and think that I will soon be one of them are guilty of exactly the tendency I am critiquing within the left. They are mistaking the social or cultural branding of my politics for the politics themselves. I identify this problem on the left because I live on the left and thus it’s more apparent to me. But it seems universal; the average political person today seems not to have a political identity that is remotely separable from their association with particular cultural or social groups. I appreciate the praise from moderates and conservatives but please don’t step into the very behaviors I criticize while praising that critique. If you really do value my intellectual independence, then allow me to be independent.
Someone asked me, when I was dismissing the importance of antifa actions at Berkeley, “what about John Brown? Would you dismiss John Brown?” To which I can only reply that the analogy is so ludicrous on the merits I don’t know where to begin. Comparing someone in a black hoodie burning a trash can with the Border War can only make sense if you have completely evacuated your political thinking of actual content and replaced it with a completely nebulous set of stylistic associations. People ask me, “do you think the Bolshevik revolution was a mistake?” The answer is no, of course I don’t — but more importantly, I also think that Russia in 1917 is nothing like the United States in 2017, no matter how badly I want a real political revolution. The obsession with the iconography of groups and movements whose material conditions are nothing like those facing the contemporary American left is the triumph of style over substance. I can think of few less genuinely Marxist behaviors than sacrificing your analytical materialism for branding, substituting a t-shirt for the dialectic. I’m only asking you to take seriously the exact political philosophy that you ostensibly endorse.
I am very happy that the socialist left has grown so much in recent months, particularly in various groups and institutions. I think it’s precisely that kind of growth in institutions that the left needs most now. I also think that the degree to which that growth can matter lies in the degree to which we can come together to define our movement as a political program, a shared vision for the future that attracts those who are subject to be convinced to join our movement out of enlightened self-interest and an interest in building a better world. To the degree that this nascent radical tendency remains a social circle, defined by slang and status and tired jokes, it will fail. The basic work for people within the movement is to find and bring into the fold precisely those people who you least want to hang out with.
And to do that work you have to figure out what the concrete beliefs of your political identity are. You have to do the reading, you have to do the reasoning, you have to do the arguing. There are no short cuts. Perpetually-bubbling controversies on the left stem from the failure to define a coherent set of values and beliefs that are built with reasoning and supported by evidence. I have asked leftists over and over again: what is the actual principle that underlies your feelings on free speech on campus? What are the rules? Who is allowed to say what and when? I get pulled into these debates over and over again and I don’t think the average leftist defender of campus activists can lay out a minimally coherent definition of who can speak, who can’t, and why. Instead, what people have is a sense of who they are associated with. They imagine themselves to be part of the social and cultural group “campus activists,” despite the emptiness of that term, and so they reflexively defend them without knowing why. We cannot win that way.
What I have been asking for, for years, is a politics that is a politics. I understand that movement building means crafting an identity and I understand that marketing is a part of politics. But the core, the foundation, has to be ideas, for us more than anyone else. I am critiquing left culture because I want left power and for no other reason. My business here is a means to an end, and that end is actually winning. You can call me misguided or a useful idiot for the right or a contrarian or whatever, but I’ve held down the same spot for years and you’d think eventually people would trust that I actually think the things I say I think, that I actually believe the things I’m saying.
Some people like me because I critique the identitarians. Fine, OK. I do critique them. But understand: when I am king, the identitarians get almost everything they want. Almost. In material terms, I’d give them almost everything they’d hope for. Our political culture is set up to act like that doesn’t mean anything. But I’ve never forgotten it, and neither should you.