Blue Blues, Blue Reds
Here’s a long criticism of the socialist Left by someone on the socialist Left. This author, a 32-year-old Afro-Swedish socialist named Malcom Kyeyune, is depressed over the uselessness of the Left today. If you’re not a Leftist, you might think there’s nothing in this essay for you. You would be wrong — it’s fascinating. He starts out with a sober realization:
All the details of the intervening decade are beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s fair to say that the left today is more broken and politically defunct than at any point since the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, a case can be made that the crisis facing the left today is more serious than the crisis of the late 80s and early 90s. ”Left populism” as a political model has failed. Jeremy Corbyn has presided over the worst labour party showing in nearly a century. The ”Sanders moment” is over, and there’s no sequel to any of these failed left projects anywhere in sight. This decline is likely terminal and irreversible, because unlike the decline in the 90s, the left no longer has any significant working class support. In fact, with each new ”left revival” a la Corbyn, the constant bleeding of working class support only seems to accelerate. Comrade Bhaskar at Jacobin magazine touts the (in)famous AOC as the next new great presidential candidate and hope for global socialism, but anyone with an IQ somewhere north of the melting point of water – or at least, anyone who doesn’t have a paper he’s eagerly trying to sell you – knows that this is a truly desperate flight of fancy that will never come to pass, not in a million years.
Kyeyune is really mad at a certain kind of person within today’s Left. Here is the heart of his essay:
To start: as the economies in western countries have shifted over the past decades, a new sort of class of people has sprung up and grown in social and political importance. In the united states, the most common name for this class is PMCs; the professional-managerial classes. Their name is less important than their function and political trajectory. To brutally simplify things for the sake of brevity, the notable feature of many PMCs as political actors is a blend of political liberalism and cultural progressivism, merged with a political project aimed at increasingly subsidizing their own reproduction as a class, ideally by means of state transfers. The state should forgive student debt. The state should dabble in reparations. The state should hire ”ideas people” to write up reports and thinkpieces about reparations. The state should create new racial justice commissions, or just generally create more jobs that can employ people who by dint of belonging to this class feel that them taking a job at Walmart means that capitalism has failed and it’s time for a revolution. The most radical, put-upon and economically insecure parts of this class today naturally gravitate toward the left, because the left is – no matter what leftists delude themselves by saying – a fairly focused, competent and credible class project. When Corbyn came out of nowhere and became Labour party leader, it was a real grassroots movement that brought him there; a grassroots movement of students and people who either have ambition to move up the ladder or a legitimate fear of looming proletarianization, of falling down the social and economic ladder and finding themselves joining the proles.
The particular form of ”pro-worker” rhetoric these members of the PMC use mostly boils down to a sort of charity. Vote for us, and we’ll give you higher benefits and free broadband, Labour recently tried to tell the recalcitrant workers of the north. It didn’t work. This mode of ”charity” is hardly selfless – it would be a free ”gift” from these PMC activists given to their precious salt of the earth proletarians, and like all gifts it would be reliant on the goodwill and generosity of the giver. Its main function would also surely be to feather the ever growing number of nests for this class of comfortable, university-educated administrators. And when some leftists start seriously debating why ”racists” should be denied medical care from the NHS, one starts getting a sense of just how much hierarchical domination their future ”worker’s paradise” promises to deliver to the working poor.
The point here is not a moral one. After Labour lost, one exasperated member and activist despaired over how blind the workers were, how easily fooled they were by tory propaganda. ”Don’t they see how evil capitalism is? How brutal and unfair it is?”, this activist wrote: ”I have many friends with good grades who are stuck working at grocery stores, stocking shelves”. Anyone who pretends to be some sort of materialist cannot in good conscience make fun of sentiments like this; it is completely rational for someone in that position to think that ”the evils of capitalism” are somehow laid bare for the world to see when their friends are forced to stock shelves like a common peon in order to pay the rent. That the other workers at the grocery store probably find this way of thinking completely ludicrous and arrogant is obviously besides the point. Politically speaking, the fury and energy that proletarianization engenders should never be underestimated, because it causes political explosions. Jeremy Corbyn successfully challenged the political cartel that had been running Labour on the back of such a political explosion.
We should not make fun of an activist who despairs at the state of the world when good, solid middle class people with solid middle class grades can no longer achieve the middle class lifestyle they were promised. It is however a basic political truth that a worker’s movement consisting of people who are angry at the prospect social and economic ”demotion” – in other words, people who are fighting against the cruel fate of having to become workers – cannot ever succeed. Promising free broadband, or unlimited Space Communism, or some other stupid fantasy world where getting angry at having to work like a normal person is acceptable because nobody has to work won’t really change that.
Kyeyune says the truth is, Marxist analysis also applies to the Left — and that means that the PMCs and actual workers aren’t really allies. He says that if the Left wants to start winning, it should get rid of the cultural progressivism of the PMC class, and focus exclusively on economics. He’s tired of socialists losing because the middle and upper middle class young socialists actually can’t stand working people, think they’re crude and racists, and would consider having to do the kind of job that actual blue-collar workers do to be a demotion. Why would an actual worker want to ally with somebody who thinks that way about manual labor? Kyeyune writes, “Once you do away with the ballast and the social and economic neuroses of grad students and managerial aspirants, working people are actually surprisingly receptive to our message.”
Kyeyune’s prescriptions make more sense in Europe. I can’t see the base of US Democrats adopting socialism any time soon. But I do think the Democrats would stand a good chance at being a dominant national party if they would get rid of the identity politics, and focus on economics. But they can’t do it, because the elites who populate the broad party policy infrastructure are all 100 percent sold on identity politics. The Republicans could outflank the Democrats on the economic front if they would develop a muscly policy to help the working class, and care less about the ultrawealthy donors. And, if they didn’t have to run behind Donald Trump.
Kyeyune’s piece put me in mind of this powerhouse November 2019 piece by Julius Krein in the right-wing American Affairs, on “The Real Class War.” In the piece, Krein talks about how the actual working class is not in much of a position to set new paths in American politics, for various reasons. The interest in socialism and socialist-adjacent policies is a phenomenon of what Kyeyune calls the Professional-Managerial Class. Krein wrote this piece before the Democratic primaries, but the fact that Joe Biden, for all his weakness, is now going to be the Democratic nominee is a vindication of Krein’s thesis. More:
Another obstacle for left-wing upper-middle-class radicals is their own debilitating false consciousness, which easily exceeds the confusion frequently ascribed to the working class. Instead of frankly acknowledging their own professional class interests, they project their concerns onto the working class and present themselves as altruistic saviors—only to complain about a lack of working-class enthusiasm later. This blindness often prevents them from recognizing where their interests diverge from the purported beneficiaries of their projects and impedes their ability to effect any larger political realignment. It also exacerbates the temptation to double down on parts of the current paradigm—such as enlarging the NGO racket—which only strengthens the billionaires in the long term.
Krein is even harsher on the elites of the Right:
Conservative donor gatherings are somehow even more pathetic. Most of the attendees are there only because they are not smart enough to recognize that the Democratic Party offers a far more effective reputation laundering service. The rest are probably too senile to know where they are at all. There is often a special irony to these events: an uninspiring ideologue is usually on hand to repeat a decades-old speech decrying Communism—recounting the horrors experienced in countries ruled by a self-dealing, incompetent nomenklatura and marked by a decaying industrial base, crumbling infrastructure, poor education system, a demoralized populace, low confidence in public institutions, falling life expectancy, repeated foreign policy failures, a vast and arbitrary carceral system, constant surveillance, and even massive power outages in major cities. Imagine that.
The bold thinkers of Silicon Valley are at least as delusional. Mark Zuckerberg must be the only person in the world who still pretends to believe his self-serving banalities about “connecting people” through social media. Jeff Bezos publicly muses about the difficulty of finding a useful way to deploy his “financial lottery winnings,” while Amazon stations ambulances outside its warehouses to treat employees who collapse from exhaustion.
What is remarkable about today’s oligarchy is not its ruthlessness but its pettiness and purposelessness. An all-consuming megalomania might at least produce some great art as a side-effect. But this collection of mediocrities cannot even do that. Their political activities—whether pushing for a slightly lower tax rate or throwing money at a self-serving brand of faux progressivism—are too small-minded to be anything other than embarrassing. This class has no idea what to do with its wealth, much less the power that results from it. It can only withdraw and extract, socially and economically, while the political justifications for its existence melt away.
Ultimately, the question that will determine the future of American politics is whether the rest of the elite will consent to their continued proletarianization only to further enrich this pathetic oligarchy. If they do, future historians of American collapse will find something truly exceptional: capitalism without competence and feudalism without nobility.
Read it all. His point is that the future of American politics will be decided by elite competition within both parties: in a fight between the 0.1 percent, and the 10 percent.
Krein was an early intellectual supporter of Trump’s because, as he explained in this August 2017 New York Times piece, he really thought Trump had the right instincts about challenging the neoliberal economic and foreign policy consensus. He founded American Affairs as a pro-Trump intellectual magazine. But he eventually grew disgusted by Trump’s failures, and said (in the Times piece) that he regretted his vote.
The Covid-19 crisis is going to scramble our politics massively, but in the end, I believe that Krein is correct: whatever consequential changes in the direction of US politics is going to come from struggles among elites. James Davison Hunter, the sociologist, points out that all change is ultimately guided by elites and their networks. As Krein put it, the masses can vote for an outsider candidate, but that candidate can’t get anything done unless he has a network behind him, and knows how to use it. Trump doesn’t, and doesn’t know how to use what he does have. His has been a wasted presidency.
Anyway, these are some things to think about regarding the future of politics. It’s really difficult to see much to give hope or build confidence on either the Left or the Right these days. It’s not just the personalities of Biden and Trump. It’s the ideas, or lack thereof.