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The problem is anti-socialism

If I were to pick one question that weighs on the mind of the modern activist left more than any other, the choice would be easy: "Why have our politics become so combative? Why has the left devolved so completely into ideological sectarianism, social tribalism, and interpersonal feuding?" Certainly, at the level of world-historical politics, this strain of anxiety may seem trivial and self-absorbed - but on the other hand, of course activists are going to have direct concerns about their own lived experiences as activists. And for many (perhaps most) on the modern left, experiences often fall somewhere on a spectrum between stressful and traumatic.

In general, I've seen a few standard explanations for this:
  • The problem is social media - It is something about online that makes the discourse toxic and unproductive. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook facilitate conversations in a way that incentivizes harassment, attention-seeking, sociopathy, and so on. Their moderation is either non-existent or actively malicious; their engagement systems (favs, likes, and such) create compulsive behavior; quirks of the medium (character limits, the permanence of casual posts, the absence of tone) are uniformly hostile to friendly, productive dialogue.
  • The problem is some guys - In any given left space, there are a handful of bad apples who are ruining everything for everyone. Among this local DSA chapter, it's some problematic dude or clique who dominates conversations, who are trying to consolidate power, who have caused yet another controversy; online, it's the weirdo pariah who constantly sows conflict; at the level of national politics, it's Clinton, or it's Bernie.
  • The problem is first-world privilege - First-world activists aren't actually dealing with significant political problems; their endless scandals and controversies are just what happens when people who are used to getting their way socialize and encounter even the smallest disagreements. If the first-world "left" actually faced significant oppression from the right, it would show much more unity and solidarity than it does.
While all of these things probably contribute to the general atmosphere of combat and hostility, I want to propose a simpler answer that I think is too often overlooked: the problem is anti-socialism.

Even today, I do not think there is an adequate appreciation on the left of just how marginalized and reviled socialists are in the United States. Historically, socialists have usually been regarded - by Republicans and Democrats alike - as dangerous, immoral, and alien extremists. We have routinely been denied basic civil and human rights, both informally (through selective enforcement, de facto discrimination, etcetera) and formally (anti-communist legislation, private sector employment policies, and so on). We are the target of an entire discourse of bigotry with its own arsenal of slurs (EG pinko, commie, brocialist). To put public sentiment in perspective, here's a typical poll from less than three years ago:

For most of my life as an activist, my experience of anti-socialism has reflected this poll. When I was involved in SDS, my chapter was surveilled and attacked by police officers; we were routinely ridiculed in the media; we were shut out of supposedly "public" spaces and denied "public" resources; and quite often, our most ferocious and belligerent critics were Democrats who identified as "left" and "progressive". Organizing against the Iraq War, the left organizations I was involved in could often only count on solidarity and coordination with local Muslim groups; even when Democrats adopted an antiwar posture around 2005, we were still marginalized as extremists, apologists for terrorism, and unpatriotic traitors. During the early Obama years, you couldn't even call for a public option - much less for single-payer - without being attacked by liberals as unserious, privileged idealists who were willing to risk the health of women and minorities in pursuit of a pipe dream. This is how it's always been.

And while I doubt that the left wants to hear this, I don't think all that much has changed. Today, the most favorable polls say that only about a third of all Americans have a positive view of socialism - a fifteen point improvement from 2009, but still lower than Trump's lowest approval ratings. And when you break down the numbers*, the picture gets even clearer:

On one hand, even the minimal support that socialism has is squishy: put four people with a "favorable" view of socialism in a room, and only one of them will support it without reservation. On the other hand, meanwhile, opposition to socialism is still rabid. A plurality of the opposition - and in fact, a plurality of the entire population - doesn't just dislike socialism: they hate it. On balance, then, the picture is clear: a tiny fraction of the population will embrace socialism without qualification, while an overwhelming majority meets it with tepid support or open hostility.

In light of this, I think there's some solid quantitative evidence to support the timeless, enduring explanation that socialists have always offered for left factionalism: liberal squishes. A significant number of people who are willing to nominally identify as socialists are in fact deeply suspicious of the socialist project; either unwittingly or quite cynically, their hope is to co-opt socialism for liberalism, to steer it back towards liberal priorities, and to purge its ranks of anyone who is focused on the fight against capitalism.

Account for squishes, and a lot of the other explanations diminish in importance. It's true that social media has made left in-fighting more visible than it's ever been before, it's true that a few doofuses are disproportionately responsible for all kinds of local and even national dysfunctions, and it's true that a lot of these controversies emerge precisely because the political stakes are so low. But anti-socialism remains one of the most powerful forces in American politics, and what would be surprising is if it didn't wreak a massive amount of havoc on the left.

* Unfortunately the polling on public attitudes towards socialism is still really spotty, so it's hard to get a clear view of how attitudes have changed, especially over the past few years, and especially if you want to break down the data.


On Jacobin's antidepressants article - a quick English lesson

Meagan Day, in a quick read on Jacobin, discusses the perils of private pharmaceutical production. That production, under capitalism, "is left up to the private corporations" on the theory that "the private sector’s interests align with the public’s" - but in fact, Day argues, because "corporations exist to maximize profit," drug companies encounter "constant conflicts of interest" which encourage them to profit "at the expense of the public good." To illustrate this problem, Day discusses traumatic "experiences of withdrawal from long-term antidepressant use," and explains that "no research had been conducted" on this problem because drug companies have a financial incentive to suppress any "information that would put a stop to those refills."

The conflict-of-interest critique that Day is working with here is explicit, it has long been a point of uncontroversial conventional wisdom on the liberal-left, and her focus on the issue of antidepressant withdrawal symptoms makes her discussion relevant and accessible to anyone who's been paying attention to the news in recent weeks. This is precisely what one should expect a publication like Jacobin to do: popularize criticism of capitalism by talking about problems that people can relate to.

Predictably, even this utterly benign article has run into a backlash online. Here, I just want to draw attention to how utterly indefensible and objectively stupid this latest round of controversy actually is. It centers on a single passage:
Antidepressant users often emphasize that having drugs available during depressive episodes literally saved their lives. The problem is what happens when patients continue taking them year after year, and become unable to stop. Many indicate that health professionals never communicated the hazards of discontinuation.
Somehow, critics have managed to conclude that there is "stigma embedded in that sentence" which suggests that it is not "fine to take antidepressants indefinitely." Day, in other words, is telling people that they shouldn't take antidepressants.

In response, some folks have insisted that this reading has nothing to do with the rest of the article, that the author explicitly disclaims it, that her "point" is as explained above, and that she is at worst guilty of a passing gaffe or inelegant phrasing. But this, I think, is far too generous to Day's critics. As a matter of basic reading comprehension, the sentence in question does not criticize the use of antidepressants. There is no grammatical ambiguity here whatsoever. The language of the sentence simply cannot be parsed to mean what its critics say that it means - and this is true not because of conjecture about what Day "intended" or because of nebulously holistic assessments of "context", but because of basic facts about how statements are constructed in English.

It is tedious and embarrassing to have to spell this out, but here we go:

"And" signals the presence of two necessary clauses, and the position of "unable" as the head adjective of the second predicate tells us that "The problem" necessarily has to do with inability. This is the simplest reading here: Day is just pro-choice when it comes to antidepressant use. Anything beyond this reading has to burden the actual text of the article with intentions and judgments that are neither expressed nor logically implicit. Any attempt to do so will either involve omitting the circled text, or interpolating into that circle text which is not actually present.

Again: this is remedial. But it is remedial only because the failure of reading here is so catastrophic, the error so elementary, and the correction so basic. I'll leave it to the reader to decide why so many seemingly competent English speakers managed to make the same utterly ridiculous mistake.


That prom picture with the armed dad - it's actually about capitalism

A few days ago, former NFL kicker Jay Feely tweeted out a picture of his daughter and her date preparing to attend their high school prom. Remarkably, Feely is in the picture as well - in fact, he is the center of attention, standing imposingly between the couple in a dark polo shirt and baseball cap. With his left hand, he pulls his daughter close, gripping her shoulder; she has a slight slouch beneath his weight, her arms hanging limply at her sides. Her date, meanwhile, stands flustered in the background, hands in his pockets, mouth creased in resignation. Feely, in his right hand - menacingly close to the date's groin - is holding a handgun.

A lot of people found the picture shocking, but anyone familiar with the genre knows that it's a standard-issue artifact of US patriarchy. The same figure appears on t-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, bad sitcom jokes, and bad sitcom titles: the possessive father warding off or dictating terms to potential suitors, often with the threat of violence. Even former President Obama took up the narrative:
The Jonas Brothers are here...Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But, boys, don't get any ideas. I have two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I'm joking.
That last line marks the deep ambivalence of the Possessive Dad theme: always delivered in a jokey tone, is it ever actually a joke? Ostensibly, we are laughing at the cartoonishly disproportionate belligerence and unprovoked hostility - but of course, the Possessive Dad is never the butt of the joke. He's a badass with a gun or an army of drones; his warnings are written in dripping blood font, with the i's dotted in skulls. The suitor, meanwhile, is never a credible rival: he is a hapless beta male who either accepts terms or faces the consequences. We would laugh at Possessive Dad's absurd display of power and authority, but something in our culture enjoys it, and even respects it.

There is also, of course, another potential reading of this picture: the passion of dad's rivalry and the obsession with his daughter's sex life both point in the same direction. The Freudian cannot help but see, in the figure of the Possessive Dad, a minor rebellion against the same incest taboo that separated him from his mother - the infantile expression of an Oedipus complex that remains unresolved.

But Possessive Dad, again, will not be ridiculed for this. Instead, he insists: "This is not sexual - I'm merely defending what is mine with extreme violence, which is cool as hell."

I noted that something in our culture approves of this posture. Here, I want to propose that at his heart, Possessive Dad is a creature of patriarchy who we rationalize through the logic of private property. His behavior is driven by passion for his daughter, but the incest taboo prevents him from acknowledging this - so to get around that, she is objectified, and incorporated into the ostensibly asexual ideology of private possession and ownership. It is the doctrine of private property, with its expansive license for violence, that he offers to explain the intensity of his vigilance. If that license had limits, it wouldn't suffice to explain just how far he is willing to go to defend his daughter, and we would be tempted to ask why he is really being so aggressive; but private property warrants everything from gunshots to drone strikes, so the rationalization works. Capitalism is the language of his sublimation.

I'm not breaking any new ground here by pointing out that capitalism commodifies women, though I think its role in this instance is probably underappreciated - but in any case, the Possessive Dad phenomenon demonstrates with unusual clarity the dialectical relationship between private property and patriarchy. The rhetoric of capitalist property rights provides a fig leaf for horny dads, and in return, horny dads proclaim and affirm the sovereignty of capitalism.


Russiagate can't be reconciled with identitarian politics

Atlanta-based NPR station WABE has run a hit piece on left activist Anoa Changa, suggesting that her appearance on Sputnik radio has "put her credibility at risk, while furthering Russia’s effort to create chaos in the U.S." I'm not going to delve into the weeds or rehearse my usual warnings about Russophobia on this one, mostly because Adam Johnson has already done a fine job in his piece about the incident for FAIR; but what I will point out is a profound reversal at work here in the way that liberal-left politics talks about identity.

Consider this passage from the WABE piece:
Changa helped lead a protest last year at the progressive Netroots Nation convention drowning out the speech of Stacey Evans, a Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia...Changa and the other protesters chanted “trust black women.”
"Trust black women," of course, is a paradigm call for identitarian deference - and ordinarily, this is a point that the liberal-left would take quite seriously. But here, the Russiagate narrative insists that we can't trust a black woman, since Anoa may be compromised by the Russian government. The Russiagate narrative and the identitarian position are directly at odds, and there's no way to reconcile them. Even if we decide that Anoa has maintained her independence and credibility, we have subjected her to our judgment, instead of trusting her; necessarily, Russiagate is a license for anyone to call anyone's politics into question, regardless of identity.

And while it may be tempting to dismiss this as some kind of superficial or passing hypocrisy, Anoa's story has exposed what is in fact a quite fundamental contradiction the way we talk about identity and ideology.

At its core, the identitarian position tells us that we derive our politics from a lived experience defined exclusively by personal identity. That's why the authority and credibility one has when speaking on a topic related to their identity is unimpeachable: a disabled person, for example, will have the most informed and unbiased perspective on any issue related to disability. There is some obvious truth to this point, I think, which is why even people who are unacquainted with the philosophical basis for identitarian thought tend to take it seriously.

But there's also a competing theory, which says that personal identity does not reliably indicate the authority and credibility of one's politics. Within any given identity category, there is always a significant diversity of perspectives on even the most basic political questions. And these perspectives can, in turn, be influenced by all kinds of things - including, for example, large-scale international psyops.

I don't think that Russia in particular has any kind of significant influence on American politics. And I think that being an intelligent and fiercely principled woman obviously does more to explain Anoa's politics than elaborate conspiracy theories about Putin slipping her rubles under the table. But I do think that the second theory, in general, is better than the first: personal identity only does so much to determine one's politics.

Regardless, no matter where one comes down on this, it should be clear that one can't have it both ways. Accept the identitarian position, and insist that it is personal identity which dictates our politics; accept the Russiagate theory, and concede that other factors can influence our politics, too. Or you could, I suppose, switch between one rhetoric and the other depending on whose politics you want to affirm or discredit - but no one would do that, right?