Left Self-Sabotage

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


December 18, 2012

Left Self-Sabotage

Caution: 3,100 words and too many generalizations.

The Left is losing. Not everyone believes this of course, and admittedly there are reasons for optimism: gay marriage is slowly being legalized, we elected a black president twice, and our society is making modest gains in gender parity. But it’s a bit like Peak Oil: not every drop is gone, and there are still some years where we extract more oil than the previous year, but overall the trend is downwards. This is the state of the Left today.

We don’t generally say this out loud, probably because it’s demoralizing and everyone knows it anyway. It also impels the question “Why?” for which we already have a widely accepted answer: because of the Right. But as an explanation, it has the interesting characteristic of being both factually true and completely meaningless. It’s like saying that the reason your team loses all the basketball game is because the other teams play better — really, it’s an expression of total resignation. The point is to ask what are we going to do about that?

We have a ready made explanations for every defeat: it’s corporations; it’s religious fundamentalists; the patriarchy; lobbying groups; white supremacists; and so on. On one hand, we anticipate defeat, but on the other we are committed to our political beliefs and remain strong even when things look bleak. This creates an occupational hazard for the Left, where there’s no real expectation of winning, so we continue doing what we’ve always been doing. Failure is assumed, so there’s no real reason to try to change tactics.

Protests are like rituals, and exist more for the community to express its devotion to a set of principles than to actually get them implemented. With dwindling membership, the community turns toward itself, alternately cleaning out the insufficiently pure and ministering to the remaining members to keep morale high while lobbing the occasional critical hand grenade in the direction of the other side. The glimmer of hope that remains is grounded in a belief that change will occur once the older generation has died off, an illusory faith that progress is a nice straight line and Right and Left are just synonyms for Past and Future.

On cultural issues, the Left consistently sabotages itself whenever there is a risk of winning. Two case studies come to mind:

In the wake of Obama’s election in 2008, some commentators apparently claimed that we had entered a new “post-racial” era in American culture. It is difficult to find out who first made this claim because the overwhelming majority of writing on the issue denounces the idea, and there’s something deeply symptomatic about that. Typically, the myth of a post-racial society is dismantled by pointing out the really existing racism that still exists and affects the lives of millions of people.

Empirically, this is obviously true, and the purpose of pointing out these facts is to dispute any claims from the right along the lines of: “We live in a post-racial society, racism isn’t a problem and doesn’t need to be addressed.” That sounds like a reasonable fear, except that it would mean that the right has embraced the symbolism Obama’s victory. There is little danger of that happening. Instead, conservatives justify their absurd claims that Obama has a deep-seated hatred of white people by fully agreeing with anti-racist activists that Obama is not a post-racial figure and does not signal a new post-racial era in America.

What is missed in the concrete empiricism of real people’s everyday experience of racism is the symbolism of Obama’s presidency? A symbol is never only a symbol, it can have real effects, as in formal meetings where the chair bangs on the gavel and announces, “The meeting is adjourned.” Empirically, nothing has changed between the time immediately before and after hitting the gavel. Everyone is still in the room sitting exactly where they were during the meeting. One might object to the chair and say, “How can you say the meeting is adjourned when everyone is still here!” This misses how the announcement isn’t descriptive, it doesn’t merely reflect on the conditions in the room, it actually alters the conditions of the room. Before the announcement, we were in a meeting; afterwards, we’re just a bunch of people milling around who know we are about to leave.

Obama’s election could have functioned as this kind of symbol—not as an empirical statement that racism does not exist, but as a symbol that the debate on race is over. “We are a post-racial society” was interpreted as a statement of fact, when it could have been interpreted along the lines of “We are a free society.” It doesn’t express an empirical truth, but a belief and a norm about who we are and who we ought to be, which would actually make it easier to address concrete examples of racism as “That’s not who we are.” The failure to take advantage of that opportunity demonstrates Left resignation to the permanence of what it fights. Ultimately, the Left takes pleasure in its marginal position, comfortable being on the outside resisting and critiquing the faults of mainstream society.

The Right constantly claims that Left cultural values are dominant, even to the point of oppressing the small minority of traditional, religious, conservative-minded people. They exaggerate a bit, but in a way it’s true. And why not? Why can’t we admit this? The Left are infected with hipsterism, desperately afraid of becoming mainstream. Here is the insane world we live in today: the Right concedes that the Left has won, and achieved cultural hegemony, and this is a devastating to the Left. Somehow, winning arguments is a bad thing. They say we’ve persuaded the vast majority of Americans? Calumny! What an accusation!

It’s such a strange reaction. To claim that opposition to racism, sexism, bigotry is the dominant values of society provokes howls of outrage, as if it was intrinsically bigoted to say such a thing. This is because the Left only knows how to be marginalized, it only knows resistance, opposition, transgression, counter-power and counter-culture, and is therefore not only resigned to the permanence of its opposite, it is actually complicit in it. The Left needs the dominant culture to be bigoted so that it can cohere as a counter-discourse challenging its legitimacy, so it can adopt a purely negative gesture of critique.

This may explain some of the unspoken reasons why the idea of a post-racial society was greeted with unusual opposition.

The second example of this tendency comes out of feminist activist blogs, where the critique of privilege is a frequent topic. Privilege is often defined as the various advantages that society confers on some groups at the expense of other groups. Peggy McIntosh, by far the most well-known proponent of the concept, writing in her essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack describes it metaphorically as:

an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.

It’s often tedious to resort to etymology, but sometimes it can be useful. The first part of the word, prive-, has the same root as the word private; the last part of the word, -lege, also appears in words like legal and implies laws and rights. Then privilege refers to a private right, a right enjoyed only by a small group, which raises the question of which part of the word is addressed by the critique of privilege. Is it the private part? Or the right part?

In other words, does the critique of privilege claim that a certain right is unfair because only whites (men, heterosexuals, etc.) are allowed to enjoy it, that it’s a private right when it should be available to all? Or does the critique seek to undermine the legitimacy of holding that right by anyone? I claim that today, it is overwhelmingly the latter, it is almost always a negative critique, in the sense that privilege is conceived as something that ought to be subtracted because it’s holders don’t deserve it.

The ambiguous meaning of the term is present in McIntosh’s essay. In numerous places, she talks about male privilege as something to be removed.

I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged… These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended… one who writes about having white privilege must ask, “having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”

The point of the article is to draw an equivalence between men’s denial of male privilege and white feminist denial of race privilege. She gives a list of 26 white privileges, which include a wide variety of things such as not having to deal with racial profiling by the police, the availability of affordable housing, having individuals of your race represented in the media, and so on. Crucially, none of her examples would be subject to a negative critique of privilege. (She says not all on her list are damaging — in fact, it’s hard to find even one.) The problem of racial profiling is not that whites are unfairly exempt from it, it’s that anyone is subject to it at all. Ideally, we want everyone to enjoy this white privilege.

McIntosh is aware of this ambiguity:

Some [privileges], like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society… We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages, which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantage, which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies. For example, the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement.

Hearing this 20 years later, the last distinction seems almost to not make sense: not a privilege, but an unearned entitlement. Today, privilege and entitlement sound basically synonymous, meaning something that you don’t deserve. Entitlement has come to mean something that someone believes illegitimately they are entitled to. The word illegitimate is implied in every use of the word, suggesting that today we believe that no one could ever be entitled to anything.

Writing in 1998, McIntosh means entitlement as legitimate entitlement, in contrast to privilege, so that entitlement is good, and privilege is bad. But this puts her at odds with herself. Where earlier she says, “Not all privileges on my list are inevitably damaging,” now she implies that in fact, privilege is always damaging, illegitimate, etc, even as she attempts to say that some privileges are good and should be the norm.

Whenever I read a critique of privilege, I always ask myself whether a negative or a positive sense is implied. In most cases, it is negative — the word has effectively become a pejorative. I would like to be able to say that this goes against McIntosh’s vision, but a close reading of her text reveals that things are mixed, particularly in the first part of the essay, where you find this sentence:

As we in women’s studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, “having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”

In any case, her effort to open up rhetorical space for privilege to be expanded seems to have been unsuccessful, since today we are almost exclusively focused on removing it. In academic settings, there will always be stipulations to the contrary, but it is almost as if there is an invisible magnetic force that systematically distorts activist discourse towards the negative.

What is this magnetic force? The negative critique of privilege deployed in activist circles represents a capitulation to neoliberal rhetoric which has undermined labor rights, social entitlements and the broad concept that citizens deserve certain privileges: food, housing, education, equality, civil and political rights, etc. Neoliberals were successful in arguing that a citizen’s rights in society are purely negative, you are allowed freedom from coercion, restrictions and government control, but you do not have any positive freedom, no right or privilege to anything because this is the first step towards totalitarianism.

Early in the essay, McIntosh makes a similar rhetoric move, saying:

As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

Formerly, racism was seen in terms of what non-whites were legitimately entitled to but lacked, which is implicitly dependent on a positive right. McIntosh’s innovation is to focus on the contents of the knapsack that whites are not entitled to have, implicitly a critique of the “positive right” of white supremacy. The enduring appeal of McIntosh’s essay is that it can be used to reframe anti-racist and anti-sexist politics in a way that does not run afoul of the neoliberal prohibition on demanding positive rights.

It’s hard to say for sure if this was her intention. But the essay was written in the late 80s, when Reagan and Thatcher were leaving office, neoliberal ideology was ascendant and social entitlements of all kinds were in the process of being dismantled. The media were preoccupied with figures of welfare queens, greedy union thugs and public employees, advancing the right wing version of the critique of overprivilege. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that anti-racist and anti-sexist ideas had to be modified to fit the dominant mood of the day to remain relevant.

The negative critique of privilege is popular among activists, most likely because they feel it wins arguments. But it wins because its underlying logic is also endorsed by the right in pursuit of their goals, so it has a kind of universal immunity. Our pre-political doxa today is that we are beset about on all sides by the iniquities of the entitled and the tyranny of the privileged, and the right and the left just compete with other to fill in the picture.

There are three problems here. First, it may be effective in the short term, but shared assumptions like these are ultimately ideological, and we should contest them rather than simply accommodating them. Second, this particular frame excludes class politics. Although people often add class to the regular checklist of left struggles, in a way, this is invalid. These struggles are often approached using a logic where class has already been discarded, and you can’t bring it back just by dutifully tacking it on the end of a list.

The third has already been mentioned, which is left self-marginalization, a problem which is especially evident in the fallout of Gawker’s outing of the Reddit troll Michael Brutsch, known as Violentacrez and notorious for creating and moderating a huge number of highly vulgar and offensive subreddits which, among other things, encouraged the posting of sexually suggestive photos of children, and of women taken in public places. The fact that Reddit permits subreddits like this to exist at all is shocking enough, to say nothing of their huge popularity: one of his more vile subreddits was voted subreddit of the year in 2008, and Brutsch himself was ranked 7th most popular user on the site.

Several commentators adopted the theoretical frame of white male privilege to explain this phenomenon, a strange notion that implies that our society endorses pedophilia and allows white men this privilege. It hardly needs to be said this is simply not true. Pedophilia is one of the most strongly and universally stigmatized crimes, and Brutsch created many other subreddits devoted extremely taboo topics, like images of dead children, necrophilia, Nazism and incest. Doesn’t this establish that he is not occupying a traditional position of social dominance? The final proof comes from the fact that Gawker was fully aware that publishing his real name would cause him to be fired from his job—effectively, using a method of enforcing social norms that was once used to destroy the lives of gay people. (There is, of course, nothing hypocritical about this.)

Despite all evidence to the contrary, many social activists represent these events as attacking socially dominant value of white male privilege, denying that they are the social authorities acting as enforcers of broadly accepted norms and agents of prohibition. Why this denial? Because the Left jealously guards its marginal position, opting for defeat rather than risk being in a position to take power. This is no more evident than in the weird similarity of Brutsch’s and Gawker’s preferred subject matter. Gawker routinely publishes obscene, salacious material at varying degrees, from minor celebrity gossip and general nastiness to more shocking things like celebrity sex tapes and the Gawker Stalker, a site for real-time tracking of celebrity sightings in New York. The name itself has a thematic connection to some of Brutsch’s subreddits, like the infamous creepshots.

Once again, the point is not that Gawker is hypocritical, that they publish articles attacking creepy behavior while secretly they are just as bad. This would imply that they only pretend to be morally upright, but behind the mask they are also guilty. In fact, it is just the opposite. Gawker tries to be creepy, positing itself as sarcastic, irreverent, transgressive and profane—this is the mask. The obscene secret concealed behind the mask is that it is an enforcer of social norms. In a 2007 profile of the website’s rise for n+1, Carla Blumenkranz writes:

Gawker retained the stance of a scrappy start-up and an attitude of populist resentment toward celebrities and insiders, even as it became the flagship publication of an online media empire.

The essence of this statement could equally apply to some of the most vocal parts of the Left. Overwhelmingly, anti-racist and anti-sexist values are the dominant ones in society (which is not by any means the same as saying that they are universally followed), and this is confirmed by conservative pundits, who tirelessly invoke to justify their own sense of marginality and persecution.

But rather than exploiting the Right’s concession, consolidating this victory and institutionalizing it, the Left suppresses it, hiding behind the anti-establishment mask and refusing to take power.