the Iron Law of Institutions and the left
By Freddie deBoer*
May 31, 2017
During the Democratic presidential primary and the general election, you may have heard reference to the Iron Law of Institutions. It’s a really essential idea articulated by Jon Schwartz in a blog post that I recommend you read in full.
The Iron Law of Institutions is this: “the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution.”
The past year saw a lot of criticism of Democrats and liberals from the radical left, the political tendency I belong to, and for good reason. The Iron Law of Institutions was invoked frequently in regards to the Bernie Sanders campaign and the antipathy towards it from members of the Democratic establishment. The hatred that people like Neera Tanden and David Brock felt for the Sanders movement, and the political tendency it represented, caused them to undermine that movement, despite the fact that the passion, organizing, and money that came from it was to the benefit of the Democratic party. Why? Because of the Iron Law: for Clintonite centrist Democrats, the priority of retaining control of the party came before the priority of winning the election. So Sanders and his supporters were vilified and marginalized in the party, to the detriment of the party, and to this day many establishment Democrats work to sap the Sanders movement of its strength even as the party desperately needs that kind of youth and vitality.
The left was correct to criticize liberals for these failings. And yet I think that it’s the left, as much as liberals and Democrats, who have failed to understand the Iron Law and how it reflects on their own project. Because if you think of the radical left as an institution, made up of a set of social and discursive communities that are loosely affiliated with various left-wing organizations, you can see that the radical left is if anything even more captured by the Iron Law, and to even more destructive effect.
So take the discourse of freedom, liberty, and rights. This discourse is very, very important to ordinary people, particularly Americans. You can lament that fact, but it is a fact. A radical left movement that wants to win would be careful in how it talks about freedom. To me, the message is obvious: socialism is desirable in part because it’s only socialism that guarantees true freedom, the freedom to live and behave free of want. We’re the movement that can make people really free because once in power we can let them pursue their own interests free of hunger, homelessness, and so on.
Is that the message in socialist spaces? Not at all. In fact if I talk about freedom in many radical left spaces, both real and virtual, I will often be told that “freedom is a bourgeois concept” or something similarly fatuous. The left typically disdains the discourse of freedom — and not in spite of the popularity of that discourse, but because of it. Why? Because of the Iron Law: to be dismissive of freedom might hurt the left movement overall, but because such dismissal is a part of left-wing culture, acting this way elevates you within left social spaces.
Right now, the left is in the process of rejecting freedom of speech as a reactionary concept. Freedom of speech has been a cherished left-wing virtue for decades, advanced by people like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, and many other radical luminaries. But lately the concept has come to be associated with the right, thanks to the vagaries of our political culture. If we were a smart, we would recognize not only that freedom of speech is consistent with left-wing principles, but also that appearing to be against freedom of speech is a sure-fire way to lose the support of potential adherents. But this kind of strategic thinking serves only to advance the movement itself; it does not advance the interests of the people within the movement. Indeed, the more that we drift into a “free speech is conservative” frame, the less people will be willing to defend the concept, even if doing so would be in our strategic political self-interest. This is the Iron Law at work.
Take campus activism. Campus activism can be a site of a lot of really important work. But campus activism has really powerful constraints, too. For one, it’s seasonal: college politics are deeply constrained by the cycle of summer, spring, and winter breaks. Momentum is constantly lost as students head out to Cabo or back home to Virginia. What’s more, college students are constantly cycling in and out thanks to graduation, making it hard to build durable groups or have consistent leadership. Most uncomfortably, college campuses in the United States have a class composition that is not in keeping with typical left priorities. When Middlebury College students protested Charles Murray violently, many leftists nominated them as the vanguard of today’s left movement. But this is a curious attitude, given that more students at Middlebury come from families in the top 1% by income than from the bottom 60%. That’s not a reason to dismiss them entirely, of course. But it is a condition that we have to ask serious questions about. When I’ve tried to ask such questions in left spaces, it’s been very unpopular, to say the least. Yet I’ve simply been making a core left-wing point: class matters.
In recent years, a dogged, no-exceptions, don’t-ask-any-questions attitude towards campus activists has taken over the radical left, to the extent where college student organizers are expected to go entirely uncriticized in left spaces. That hurts our movement, but because criticizing college students risks losing status within the left movement, lefties are afraid to do so. That’s the Iron Law of Institutions for you.
Or take random outbursts of street violence against the right. This has been a matter of absolute obsession within the radical left for this entire year. The amount of attention spent on, say, the minor dust up at Berkeley would seem totally bizarre in comparison to the actual material impact on the world of such violence. As Marxists we are, of course, materialists, and thus are meant to privilege the objective facts about material conditions above emotional and cultural commitments. As an objective matter the salience of right-wing political street violence to our constituencies is very low. Compare the number of victims of neo-Nazis, in this country of 315 million, to the victims of poverty and homelessness. Our priorities should be obvious. Meanwhile, our ability to actually create positive change through violent force is incredibly limited even under the most optimistic reading of the facts.
Yet for months, we’ve fixated on the potential for left-wing victory through antifa tactics and street violence. Why? Because of the Iron Law. Loudly braying on social media about how we’re going to punch and kick our way to socialism has if anything net-negative effects on our movement. Indeed, dismissing the left as thugs who are unable to win through the actual process of democracy is a constant right-wing canard, one they have used to great effect for decades. But for people already within the left’s social spaces, arguing for political violence is associated with a kind of cool or cachet. It marks you as a radical, as someone who’s in favor of “really doing something.” It brings with it a sense of left-wing machismo. And so the incentives for the left are misaligned: to advance the movement, we should treat political violence as the distraction that it is, but to advance inside the movement, people have to showily associate themselves with the tough guys calling for armed revolution.
Letting people fixate on their fantasies of righteous violence hurts the cause. But asking them to do otherwise hurts your position within the cause.
This condition can be found in real-world spaces, but it particularly flourishes on social media. Left Facebook and Twitter spaces are almost entirely absent of strategic thinking about how to actually build the kind of mass movement necessary to take real power. Instead, they often function as sites of competition to be as insular as possible. Again: it is more to your social advantage to be the Ultimate Lefty than it is to set your statements up in such a way that they advance left-wing causes, which will often entail,whether we like it or not, playing to people who do not already believe what we believe. It will often entail, whether we like it or not, letting go of the in-jokes, memes, and in-group lingo that are so much a part of left discursive spaces.
But those jokes are valuable if what you care about is being a lefty celebrity. George Ciccariello-Maher’s white genocide joke did absolutely nothing to advance the interests of any actually-existing person of color, but since the joke gained him notoriety within the left, it fulfilled its function — that is, he sacrificed the good of the movement for the good of himself. That’s the general way of the Edgelord Left.
People say, well hey, you’re paying too much attention to the internet. But as someone who does not go a week without attending an organizing meeting, union meeting, or protest (and usually goes to multiple every week), I find that social media is changing real-world left discourse, not the other way around. And this attitude supposes that there’s far more of a line between our online rhetoric and our offline personas, as if these things don’t bleed into each other constantly — especially given how important online engagement has become for organizing and advertising real-world events.
People talk a lot about the current moment as the beginning of a nascent left ascendance. I would love to believe that’s true, and I do think that the material conditions have worsened in this country to the point where people are getting fed up. But I’ve been working in left activism, in one way or another, since I was 14 years old. In those 20 years, I have never encountered a time where the discursive conditions within the radical left were less conducive to building a mass movement through appealing to the enlightened self-interests of the persuadable. I fear that the internet has simply made it too easy for leftists to find each other and build mutually-therapeutic communities which encourage people to regress into them, rather than to spread their message slowly through society. And I fear that replacing the union hall with the college campus as the center of left intellectual life has made class struggle seem like an intellectual exercise rather than a day-to-day matter of life and death.
I think there’s real problems within the left — theoretical, political, discursive, pragmatic. I say these things out of a deep and sincere belief that we must fix our own problems before we can hope to gain power necessary to fix the world. Some people disagree, which is fine. What I find disturbing is how few other people are willing to take on a role of within-group critic, and how many are willing to excommunicate anyone who performs such a role. Who is allowed, within the left, to tell the left things it does not want to hear? The Iron Law helps explain the absence of such voices. As for me, almost none of the people who most need to hear this message will bother to read it. Instead, they’ll tell the same sad jokes to the same group of the already-convinced, preventing the possibility for effective introspection and reform. And that’s exactly the problem.
(* On January 23, 2019, I emailed Freddie deBoer and asked him if he had ever considered republishing, or allowing someone else to republish, a series of his essays he had taken offline that I found myself going back to the archive pages of over and over again, and frequently recommending to others. He gave me permission to republish whatever I wanted. Suffice it to say that if Freddie ever wants to re-republish his work himself, I’ll replace the bodies of these posts with a link to each essay’s new home. In all cases, I simply copied and pasted the latest available archived Medium.com copy over from archive.is. I’ve resurrected “Planet of Cops,” “of course, there’s the backchannel,” and “the Iron Law of Institutions and the left” for now, but let me know if there are others you’d like to see back online in live form. Thank you to Freddie for allowing me to republish these.)