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The liberal call for left purity

It rarely gets put explicitly, but unpack the rationale for a certain genre of left activism and you'll get something like this: to emancipate the poor and oppressed masses around the world, we must banish from left organizations and social circles people who believe and do reactionary things. In the discourse, this theory is usually litigated as a call for political purity. The theory's critics bring up all kinds of pragmatic considerations about the need to build political coalitions, about the subject's net contribution to the left given the pros and cons, about the position of the subject's crime in a ranking of priorities, and so on; the theory's partisans, meanwhile, maintain a simple, principled call for political righteousness.

If what we actually care about is justice, equality, and prosperity - and not just in our proximate social and political circles, but everywhere - I don't think that purity praxis survives much scrutiny. Here, however, I want to make a quite different point: really existing purity praxis, in its most dominant form in left discourse, has nothing to do with purity. Set aside the metaphysical Platonic ideal of what purity praxis could be or should be and watch how it actually plays out in the real world of left politics, and one can't miss how this really works. Left purity is enforced as long as it's in agreement with mainstream liberalism; when the two are at odds, left purity is ignored, or dismissed as negotiable.

Consider, to bring up the obvious example, the recurring call for a purge from the left of anyone who opposes legalized abortion. As a rule, this controversy always plays out the same way. Critics of the purge call for tolerance, or they call for a temporary suspension of judgment, or they try to insist that pro-life activists actually do meet left standards of political purity. The purge's partisans, meanwhile, assume an uncompromising political posture, waving away objections as trivial pedantry, or bad-faith rules-lawyering, or base, treacherous leniency.

Single out this controversy - bracket it off from the broader operation of political discourse - and it's easy to understand Really Existing Purity Praxis (REPP) as a principled defense of left politics. Take one step back, however, and it's clear that REPP abandons any interest in purity as soon as we enter the realm of left economics. I do not mean to say that we merely neglect efforts to enforce left economic orthodoxy - because it's worse than that. Consistently, REPP tolerates, normalizes, defends, and even promotes reactionary economic positions. And it does all of this while claiming the mantle of political purity, and excorciating its critics as heretics.

Hypocrisy aside, what I think the left should find most troubling about REPP is the way that its double standard just-so-happens to benefit liberalism. When our discourse only enforces leftism acceptable to the liberal consensus while treating everything distinctive about leftism as negotiable, or debatable, or even possibly wrong, the effect is to subordinate left politics to the liberal agenda. The problem with REPP isn't that it enforces pure leftism - the problem is that what REPP enforces is neither pure nor leftism. It's just an exercise in liberalism.

I don't think it makes very much sense to understand REPP as a conscious or deliberate tactic that liberals use to hijack left discourse, though this certainly happens in some cases. To appreciate how it works, all one really needs to notice is a few things:
  • Liberalism still has overwhelming control of our media and political institutions, and it still has more popular support among activists in the first world. For this reason, all liberal positions have a massive apparatus of ideological enforcement in place - even those that fall within the liberal-left consensus. Whether they enter left discourse as hostile critics, cynical concern trolls, or sympathetic fellow-travelers, liberals will inevitably exercise an enormous warping effect upon REPP, contributing to and amplifying critiques that are amenable to their agenda while neglecting or directly undermining those that they find inconvenient.
  • Even leftists who are committed to the entire left agenda - even those who are aware of the critique of REPP I have outline above - will nevertheless have more opportunities, and will find it far more comfortable, to practice REPP within the liberal-left consensus. Corporate media and medium blog posts pump out a constant, endless supply of critique within the liberal-left consensus for leftists to cosign; anti-liberal left critique, meanwhile, will receive far less positive feedback, and will often receive considerable flak. And while these dynamics prey upon the powerful psychological forces of conflict aversion and ideological conformity, neither of them require the leftist to betray their values and principles at any particular moment - so the leftist who does not make an active, deliberate effort to compensate for REPP will have everything to gain and nothing to lose by embracing it.
  • Meanwhile, within the nominal left, affirmative economic prescriptions remain controversial. And the absence of a consensus alternative to rally around often leaves liberalism’s economics critics fractured, or encourages a multi-tendency economic agnosticism that can subtly expand to accommodate liberalism itself. Thus, while left critique to liberalism is systematically inflated, left critiques of liberalism are systematically undermined.
This is how REPP can subordinate left politics to liberal discourse even as individual actors maintain commitments to left principles. It also explains how liberals who exclusively enforce liberal priorities can come to think of themselves as leftists: within REPP, their behavior is indistinguishable.

Having recognized the way that liberalism can seize control of purity politics, it is tempting to propose, among leftists, a deliberate focus on policing economic discourse and practice - not because it is "more important" or "more fundamental" in some sense, but simply as a corrective to its overwhelming systematic erasure by REPP. Personally, however, I don't think this disadvantage can be overcome by clever discourse gaming by the left, particularly since it emerges from the basically insurmountable material advantages liberalism gains from things like capitalist control of industrialized media. As long as capitalism is with us, it will maintain a powerful ideological apparatus that is capable of co-opting the left agenda at any moment. The solution to this, of course, is the abolition of capitalism, but how you get from here to there while capitalism remains in control of the discourse remains a puzzle.