Political theorist Wendy Brown once described the toxic subculture within progressive and radical liberal circles as “a politics of recrimination and rancour, of culturally dispersed paralysis and suffering” and more recently noted the tendency of contemporary debates to be “full of ranting and posturing, emptied of intellectual seriousness”. They were apt observations. Anyone with a longish history on the left can recount numerous examples of petty, deranged, bureaucratic moralism deployed as a substitute for trying to win an argument in meetings and activist spaces and, of course, on social media.
The left more than anyone has to strive for clear reasoning and argument because genuine social change requires the majority of people to be conscious of capitalism’s functioning, and clear-headed agents of their own destiny with a thought-out strategy to overcome the oppression and exploitation that stunt human development. By their nature, obscurantism and the stifling of debate help reinforce existing inequalities. The political right trades in conspiracy theories, lies and ideological dogma precisely to sow confusion and thereby keep working class people divided by concealing the causes of social alienation and suffering, and preventing the identification of those who really benefit from the status quo.
So when I saw there was an open letter “on justice and open debate”, signed by more than 150 scholars and writers published in Harper’s Magazine, I assumed it would be a sensible critique of the negative culture identified by Brown that has been a tiresome, right wing fixture of progressive politics. The letter, however, is anything but. Two of its central contentions are at best unsupported by the evidence, and at worst are outright fabrications constituting, despite the signatories’ professed support for the movement, a scurrilous attack on Black Lives Matter.
“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts”, the letter begins. So far so good. What comes next, however, is the infamous “but”. “But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity ... The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”
These assertions don’t withstand scrutiny. The frame of acceptable debate in the US over the last several years has been expanded dramatically, rather than constrained. That much is obvious even from Australia. A rigid neoliberal political consensus that banished left critiques from official political life – that mocked or simply ignored any questioning of market supremacy and the carceral state – has fractured, and through its cracks has shined an array of previously blocked opinions.
It is stunning, for example, that the country responsible for the term “McCarthyism” and the House Un-American Activities Committee became host to a broad and inclusive debate about one of the most “cancelled” ideological positions of the last century: socialism. So far reaching was the debate that the world’s premier bourgeois political institution, the Democratic Party, had to reckon with it – not in one of its university chapters, but in the presidential primaries and on network and cable television. Socialism was discussed, and in turn promoted and maligned, in campuses and workplaces across the country. The Trump White House even weighed in, its Council of Economic Advisers releasing a polemic, “The opportunity costs of socialism”. Such a debate was unimaginable 20 years ago, when politics still had not emerged from the shadow of “the end of history”. It is testament to a significant ideological openness among tens of millions of US residents that this debate broke out.
Within the broader discussion, there was a free exchange of information and ideas relating to topics otherwise maligned by official politics: the costs and benefits of universal health care, whether private health insurance should exist, whether the presence of billionaires is a signal of policy failure. In the land of hyper-individualism, there was a debate about whether access to education, well-paid work, health care, child care and so on were collective human rights rather than privileges to be earned – a discussion that in turn raised fundamental questions about the sort of society in which people want to live.
The most lamentable aspect of US political culture in recent years has been the greater legitimisation of reactionary and bigoted ideas harking back to the era of official segregation. Yet, contrary to the assertions of the letter’s signatories, this has been a function of the widening of debate, rather than its narrowing. For example, the idea of building a wall along the southern border of the United States, shunned decades ago by even the poster child of Republican reaction, Ronald Reagan, is now mainstream. An array of racist talking points have become so “freely exchanged” that they emanate from the White House on a weekly basis. Are undocumented immigrants mostly criminals and rapists? It would be good if such a preposterous question didn’t require debating. In the US, it apparently does, such has been the broadening of what is considered acceptable opinion in recent years.
With Black Lives Matter, other questions have been thrust to prominence: who does law and order serve? Should the police be defunded? What is the nature of racism? Does it stem from bigoted individuals, or are bigoted individuals the result of structural inequalities that need to be challenged? There is a huge discussion about these, which is tremendous, given the ongoing oppression of Blacks and the incredible levels of police violence. So broad is the discussion that Foreign Affairs, one of the most influential establishment journals of foreign policy, this month ran a piece titled “The racist origins of US policing: demilitarisation will require decolonisation”.
Should the military be deployed against people protesting police violence? A case for the affirmative made the opinion pages of the New York Times in June. So did a piece by Mariame Kaba titled, “Yes, we mean literally abolish the police”. Is this a sign of “the free exchange of information and ideas ... daily becoming more constricted”, of “ideological conformity”? Or is it, to the contrary, evidence of a polity broadening its ideological horizons, for better and for worse, to the left and to the right?
And what of the moralistic culture of recrimination and rancour? The two phrases from Wendy Brown in the opening paragraph come from 1993 and 2015. The signatories to the Harper’s letter say that the situation is qualitatively worse day by day, and imply that Black Lives Matter has contributed. This is not only unprovable, but dubious. The last several years arguably have witnessed a partial retreat from the excesses of the negative political culture – first under the influence of the Sanders movement’s relentless and positive focus on the benefits of class solidarity, and now with the multiracial outpourings in hundreds of cities, which have been characterised not by noxious hyper-individualised carping, but by a carnivalesque spirit of solidarity rarely observed in US political life.
That the signatories of the open letter chose to single out the largest progressive protest movement in US history and suggest that it has played a role in exacerbating the existing negative political culture is nothing short of preposterous. Mass resistance and mass struggle are the only basis for any meaningful or lasting social transformation precisely because they cut against the alienated conditions of existence of capitalism, which give rise to hopeless individualism and rancour. It is precisely in the mass struggle that horizons are broadened, rather than narrowed.
The US leads the world culturally and politically. For decades, its influence in these spheres has been utterly malign – trash social theories from its academics, celebrity worship, bling culture and a self-centred moralistic identity politics running side by side with, and complementing, a vacuous corporate politics of the spectacle. It has been loathsome and deserving of harsh critique.
Yet in recent times, workers and the oppressed in the US have managed to become exporters of hope and resistance in spite of the negative influence of their self-professed political “leaders” – a massive turnaround that disproves the rest of the world’s equally detestable and elitist liberal wank that Americans are all hopeless morons. At this very moment, a group of writers and scholars somehow found a way to be concerned at the way things were developing. Some of the signatories to the Harper’s open letter no doubt are of good intention. But they got the target terribly wrong.