Sean McBride is an independent writer
“The thinking person,” George Orwell wrote in 1937, “by intellect usually left-wing but by temperament often right wing, hovers at the gate of the Socialist fold.” It was his concern that the task of thinking through and adopting socialist views in itself alienated otherwise smart people from their own purposes. Jordan Peterson tells us in Maps and Meanings that he read The Road to Wigan Pieras an indictment of the left, that they merely hate the rich and don’t genuinely love the poor. This implies they are parasitic to democratic values, and not constructive in what they are offering. To the extent he is correct it is not the end but the beginning of a broader discussion. Orwell saw it was the backlash to socialists, among elites and the public, that led to fascism. “My job here, therefore,” he continues, “is to suggest…how a reconciliation might be effected between Socialism and its more intelligent enemies.”(1)
Today, the United State’s new democratic socialists have taken great strides in this direction already, skewing the 2020 primary toward policies that were initially unpopular in 2016. There may have been an element of populism to this, but one can see in Orwell’s approach a need for the broader left to reconnect with the actual populace—“deplorables” and all. An exploding journalistic fascination with Appalachia after the 2016 election demonstrated some awareness of this, albeit in a superficial way. The “liberal media” has more broadly wrung its hands over the “alt-right” with far less attention to the “alt-left”, partly because A) it takes the socialist critique for granted, and B) the market forces involved in the current establishment clearly have a negative interest in the flowering of this movement. (2) The history of FBI counter-intelligence targeting leftists has also forced democratic socialists to think more deeply about a long-term strategy against such odds.
Several major problems with liberalism have been given a voice from left-of-center, but there are barriers to this inherent in the expediencies of communication and public discourse today. Reactionaries on college campuses have been seized as straw-men, though their desperation can be traced to an arms race of ideas. What anthropologist David Graeber (known to some extent for involvement in the Occupy movement) has criticized as the self-flattering creed among many academics that “knowledge is power” resonates with what Richard Rorty saw during the Clinton administration as a rising “spirit of detached spectatorship” that lacked any constructive sensibility or hope.(3) Even before that, Jodi Dean confronted some key weaknesses in identity politics, from a feminist perspective.(4)
Today a growing chorus of academics assent to a vision of the left that can unite in terms of class rather than intersecting grievances, for intellectual reasons rather than simply tactical or ideological reasons. Touré Reed has criticized the “ritualized acknowledgment” of racism among liberals who have consistently undermined their own efforts to heal symptoms of oppression by ignoring the causes they share.(5) As Ibram Kendi emphasizes in Stamped From the Beginning, it was primarily in the interest of disguising grotesque class asymmetries that “white” elites came to insist such asymmetries reflected a natural hierarchy.(6) This allowed the ideals of liberalism to remain in the custody of wealthy whites, who could appeal to those values while cynically asserting that their critics did not share them.
Public intellectuals have appealed to the chastened, centrist liberal vanguard against “tribalism,” because the latter implies haste or expedience, the rushed movement of a mob. But an (over)educated public is finding this increasingly unconvincing.(7) The very structure of the work-week and the modest protections we now have for civil rights were themselves products of sustained uprisings. It is in the interest of expedience that liberals have avoided addressing underlying inequities in society— focusing on piecemeal reforms that have little public enthusiasm, and in some cases this makes them more vulnerable to repeal years later, with diminished backlash. Such an approach has instead garnered sustained opposition from the right, who point out that you cannot intervene to help one group of people without it having indirect consequences on others.
Laying its sights on the long-game of transcending ritualized spectacles of race, gender, and other iniquities, this new tide of American socialists has recognized right-wing reaction less as a banner and more as a manifestation of a shared empirical reality. The sacrosanct lies of individualism may seem an insurmountable obstacle for socialists hoping to make their case in the ideological epicenter of global capitalism, but in confronting identity politics and the careless expediencies of leadership there may yet be a way for them to make progress on two fronts simultaneously. For the short term, it may sway conservative voters in common cause against liberals. In the long term, this may help advance their ultimate case against classical liberalism itself.
(1) George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier. 1937. (Berkeley Publishing Corp., 1961). p.176-180.
(2) For starters, see: https://fair.org/home/nyts-campus-free-speech-coverage-focuses-7-to-1-on-plightof- right/Also, for sake of brevity: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/bernie-sanderswashington- post-media-complaint-872349/
(3) David Graeber, The Democracy Project. (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013). pp. 120-121. Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). p. 13.
(4) Jodi Dean, Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism after Identity Politics. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft4779n9s6/ p. 70-75.
(5) https://catalyst-journa l.com/vol1/no4/between-obama-and-coatesSee also: https://www.seattleweekly.com/news/a-marxist-critiques-identity-politics/.
(6) Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (New York: Nation Books, 2016). p. 9-10.
(7) See https://prospect.org/article/how-dlc-does-it; see also: https://www.apnews.com/6c9263d76e9e477da15abaec2045f6c9; For more, see https://www.thenation.com/article/gop-donors-and-k-street-fuel-third-ways-advicedemocratic- party/; and https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/10/how-democrats-killedtheir- populist-soul/504710/