A few notes on "Twilight of the American Left"
A new article on the Post Left gets a few things right but a few things very wrong.
UnHerd has published a new take by Park MacDougald on the odd internet sect known as the Post Left. To his credit, MacDougald is familiar enough with the ideas at play to recognize some of the precedents of Post Left rhetoric; but unfortunately, his inclination to take their rhetoric at face value leads him to miss their most important influence of all: the GOP. A few notes.
First, some praise. Correctly, MacDougald notes that “the most obvious spiritual predecessor to the post-Left is the Italian-American philosopher Paul Piccone”. This is a vast improvement over the habit of some folks in the media to identify them, oddly, as the “traditional, Marxist or labor-oriented left”. Insofar as Post Left rhetoric resembles anything, it most closely resembles a few relatively modern currents of critical theory that, in their flight into idealism, are only related to Marxist orthodoxy by distant ancestry.
That said, a telling point: look at The Bellows for mentions of Piccone. Look through the tweets of the figures MacDougald mentions. You won’t find him, just as you won’t find mention of another obvious precedent for the Post Left that MacDougald misses, The Platypus Affiliated Society.
The reason for this is simple: the Post Left has mostly stumbled into these ideas by accident, often with no understanding of their origins or the theoretical framework that they’re embedded in. Take for example the Piccone’s idea of “artificial negativity” mentioned by MacDougald. The Post Left doesn’t use this term; instead, they invoke an identical idea called “manufacturing dissent,” which they believe they have invented.1
Even in the case of Lasch, someone who has become a kind of cultural icon on the Post Left, the references are mostly opportunistic. There is zero real effort to integrate his thought with the rest of the ideas they deal in into a consistent intellectual framework; no attempt, for example, to explain how his conception of “narcissism” can be understood as some kind of motive political force even as the Post Left dismisses talk of other psychological factors (like racial bias) as idealistic.
This raises the question: if the Post Left is not actually embarked on the same political project as figures like Piccone and Lasch, what are they doing? One answer, I think, can be found in the precedent I mentioned above: The Platypus Society. Here’s how Ben Campbell described them in an open letter written nearly a decade ago:
As an organization Platypus conceives of itself as possessing an understanding of history…this historical consciousness resides above all in [founder Chris] Cutrone, who serves as a guru figure for Platypus as the organization's “chief pedagogue.” Platypus seeks to capitalize on widespread dissatisfaction with the Left to direct recently politicized young people, especially undergraduates, away from the Left, and to progressively instill in them an extreme hostility towards it, based on loyalty to Cutrone's historical narrative alone.
Sound familiar? With the Post Left we have the same two crucial ingredients. First, recently politicized young people who are frustrated with the left — specifically, baby Bernie Bros who are facing their first major political setback with the end of the Sanders era. And second, a small clique of “guru figures” who are capitalizing on this frustration to turn their followers against the left.
This brings us to my second answer, which I explored in my analysis of the Post Left nearly a year ago: when I say that a small clique is capitalizing on frustration with the left, I am speaking literally. Nearly every major figure on the Post Left has an identical career path: they struggled to launch media careers as socialists, but eventually found a viable niche market by repositioning themselves as anti-socialist apostates. And in fact, while MacDougald characterizes the Post Left’s “alliances with the populist Right” as merely “provisional,” Republican patronage is clearly the indispensable engine of their business model. The Post Left relentlessly peddles the GOP talking point du jour2 and promotes or defends various party figures and organizations; in turn, these same Republican stakeholders throw them an occasion crumb of promotion from their giant platform, or gives little business opportunities (like freelance work), or access to high-profile guests for their podcasts, all of which translates into more money. The career incentives at work have demonstrably played as much of a role in shaping Post Left politics as any body of theory, which is why (contrary to what MacDougald seems to think) some of its more prominent members now openly identify as right-wing, and even as capitalists.
A minor but clear example occurred recently when a prominent Post Left podcaster and a Claremont Institute goon tweeted out criticism that was clearly workshopped in backchannels — and that also bore a striking resemblance to talking points advanced at the same time by populist right darling JD Vance. One does not need to stipulate some kind of conspiracy or even a formal arrangement to understand that this is how the “organic” wing of contemporary political PR works: influencers know who to take their cues from and understand that they will be rewarded, with promotion and access if nothing else, if they stay on-message.