Backlash

If you enjoy this essay I have a free book form PDF of my best essays titled “Something to read in quarantine: Essays 2018-2020”. you can grab it here. 

I

Predicting the future is stupid etc. etc. but…

I believe, although obviously I cannot know, that there’s about to be a successful cultural backlash to “social justice”. This is especially true if Biden wins the election, but may happen even if Trump wins. The backlash will be, to a certain degree, pan-ideological, drawing in elements of both the left and the right. I anticipate this backlash will be, on the whole, socially regressive in effect, although some elements of the backlash may have only the best of intentions.

My read is that pretty much everyone would agree with the statement “elements of the social-justice movement haven’t been tolerant enough”. It’s just that no one agrees on which elements those are. Once this inchoate dissatisfaction starts to congeal into an articulated program broadly acceptable to a large swathe of intellectuals, personalities etc., it’ll be game over.

I’m part of a largish Facebook group of academics and graduate students in philosophy. Recently someone put up a poll about whether cancel culture has gone too far in that group, and out of a large sample 90%+ agreed with the statement, in the specific context of cancel culture, that: “greater viewpoint diversity is needed”. If a culturally progressive movement can’t even hold the trust of the philosophy profession- about the best audience outside cultural studies, sociology and anthropology- it has lost in the longterm. 

II

I find myself uniquely positioned on this, because I’ve long been a bit of a critic of what I see as social-justice gone wrong, but I also reject the most prominent left-wing alternative- a kind of “pull your head in and get with the program- class-first!” economism. I’ve always maintained that the fundamental problem with the never-ending debate about whether capitalism or, for example, racism is “more important” is that racism is a load-bearing part of capitalism- it divides and weakens the working class. Because traditional social justice politics doesn’t fully recognise the unity of these struggles, it breeds moralism.

To see why it breeds moralism consider the category of privilege. Talking about, for example, white privilege, conjures a model on which whites win out from the suppression of people of colour. The truth is though that everyone loses from this division in the proletariat except the capitalists. The relative advantages described as white privilege are actually detriments to most white people in the long run as a divided working class is a weak working class. For a deeper and more nuanced discussion of the structural utility of sex and race to capital, see Selma Jame’s Sex, Race & Class: https://libcom.org/library/sex-race-class-james-selma

Thus the term “privilege” is, at best, misleading. The danger is that the framework of privilege can make us lose sight of the shared interests of the working class in opposing oppression. This leads to paranoia and denunciations. If I think that you are winning out of my oppression, then I’ll remain eternally sceptical of any claims you make to be an ally.

Not to mention that this whole framework is terrible politics. If you want people to oppose oppression the last thing you should do is go around claiming that they win out of it. This might appeal to a handful of morally anxious virtue signallers, but few others. Hence I reject social justice politics founded on categories like privilege.

However I also reject economism, because the idea of choosing between class struggle and struggle against sectional oppression is meaningless if the two are continuous- genuine struggle against racism necessarily advances the class struggle.

III

Suppose you agreed with me about the above, and suppose I’m right that a backlash is coming, what follows? Politically it seems to me that the best strategy is probably to try to shape the backlash- to ride the wave. To say loudly, that there is an alternative both to backbiting moralism and “hurr hurr why why man call self woman?” troglodytism. To be able to admit it’s kind of fucked up to go after someone for having said a slur ten years ago while also being responsible enough not to use them ourselves now.

This line isn’t going to be easy to run, because it will alienate both the terminally woke, and the obsessive “anti-PC” types. Also, trying to support positions more complex than simple slogans is hard in Twitter Naraka. The details of how we can position ourselves as a midpoint between histronics on the one hand, and apathy or even cruelty about oppression on the other, are not easy, but this is the conversation that serious people with a leftwing politics need to have. A superficial call for a more balanced perspective is a start, but it is not enough, the key is an underlying politics or theory of how the world works that encourages a balanced perspective. Historical materialism that emphasises the structural role of gender, sexuality and race in the class framework holds up well in this regard.

IV

I’ll end with a few words of unsolicited personal advice. It seems to me that there are two kinds of cynicism that seem opposed in practice but are really the same in their underlying premises. You can arrive at either kind of cynicism through a kind of dichotomous view of things- first you see things contain evil, then you infer that if they contain evil they must be evil.

The first kind of cynicism says that most- or even all people- are bad, and appoints itself crusader on behalf of good. The second kind says that most- or even all- people are bad, and consequently gives itself up- either unto despair, or unto joining the grift. Neither kind of cynicism exactly maps onto either side of the current debate about cancel culture- rather there are elements of both forms of cynicism both sides of the debate. These elements are a lot of what makes the whole shitfight unedifying.

The only way past either kind of cynicism I know of is to make a Kirkegraadian leap of faith and decide that you want to be aesthetically, morally and spiritually, on the side of humans, whatever their glorious and terrible contradictions. There are probably different ways of reconciling being on the side of people with the existence of great evil in the hearts of most of us, but what works for me is viewing people as huge- as tremendous vessels large enough to contain giant globs of evil, but with enough space leftover for things worth treasuring.

3 thoughts on “Backlash

  1. “The truth is though that everyone loses from the suppression of queer desire and identity except capital and the capitalists.”

    But how do capitalists benefit from suppressing queer desire? I would have assumed capitalists benefit from catering for any kinds of people who are able to pay, which should make them pretty tolerant – 20 bucks is 20 bucks, no matter who gave it to you. There might be good money in selling specific products/services with regard to all varieties of kinks?

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    1. In the long run I tend to trust the capitalist’s judgement on this- and the general pattern is that capital and the political establishment resisted queer rights for a long time, even as they were championed by progressives, before a large section of capital came to an accommodation with gay and lesbian rights sometime after 2000 (the rights of other queer people remain more fiercely contested).

      There are several possible different diagnoses of why capital felt threatened by queer rights- one of the most popular is that the nuclear family is a bedrock of capitalism. I’d also point to the usefulness of queer rights as a wedge issue as another cause- although the usefulness of a wedge issue can go both ways.

      I might change the example in the text, because I think the connection between queer rights and and anti-capitalism is less immediately obvious than that between, say, anti-capitalism and anti-racism.

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  2. Wonderful blog. I’m afraid there will be no ‘backlash’ because the power of one movement v. the other take completely different forms.

    That 90% of academics on an FB poll are ‘concerned about cancel’ culture … may not matter. This is not about how many support who, but how power dynamics work, and the leverage they have.

    Very simply – in academia and the arts and entertainment, nobody wants to be seen as ‘right wing’ or even remotely associated with that. Therefore, nobody will publicly take ‘that side’ if an issue, lest they be destroyed. Nuanced thought is irrelevant. If you say something that is on the ‘right’ side of an issue, but still a 8/10 ‘leftist’ – you’re still on ‘the wrong side’.

    Literally today, Russell Brand commented on the inherent sexuality of the ‘WAP’ video (highly sexualised video by former stripper Cardi B and friends). Because Cardi is Black, Female, slightly large, former stripper, and also framing the burlesque in ‘social justice terms’ ie this is ‘women’s empowerment’ – she has an *Iron Clad* meme that will melt away and destroy any ostensible commentary.

    Predictably, right on cue, some GOP senator said something about ‘lacking God’, and the NYT, Guardian etc. equally as predictably hopped on to lament the Senators statement as ‘exemplary of anyone who disagrees with our side, and also fascist’ (like a living straw man).

    Russel Brand – avowed socialist, supporter of some communist ideals … spoke with some nuance on the subject, and they’re after him as well ‘Mansplaining’ etc..

    The call to ‘social justice’ in any form, because it’s a sensitive subject, must be absolute. Very famous former porn star Sasha Grey, while talking about her past, indicated that what she did was ‘art’ and she wasn’t doing it for the money, but as a ‘feminist form of artistic expression’. Basically, this is completely ridiculous, almost certainly untrue – but if you want to write of a decade of your life wherein you did porn, and make yourself irreproachable on the subject, you just couch it in SJW terms. The interviewer wouldn’t ever, ever dare question a woman making claims to feminism.

    Prof. Bret Weinstein, at Evergreen State College, dared to stand up to a comically outlandish Maoist coup at the Uni, where by merely questioning the Monty Python Far Left Circus landed him labelled fascist, his career in ruins. For being merely 9/10 socialist and daring to challenge those to the left, that enabled them to destroy him.

    The Communist Party of Germany in the 2010’s didn’t care about dumb fascists, they regarded institutional socialism as *literally* fascism. Their direct ideological orders from Stalin, that anything ‘to the right’ of them, was *literally fascist. They murdered two Berlin police and tried to take down the Socialist (Democratic Socialists, SPD, same party as in Germany today).

    So the very reason there will be no ‘backlash’ – is the same reason that this problem has been allowed to be created in the first place. In every single discussion at CNN, at the office, at Nike, in most of the press, in Academia – the ‘SJWs’ are emboldened to speak loudly, and everyone else is feeling the heat to ‘shut up’. This disparity is everywhere in many institutions and now normative. This is the ‘imbalance’ and I don’t see how there could be a backlash in the current climate.

    The term ‘Black Lives Matter’ is an absolutely perfect marketing slogan. Imagine starting a movement, the title of which, if anyone objected to publicly, could subject them to destruction. Then, anything you do ‘in the name of’ must be sanctioned. It’s a free public ticket to do almost anything: attack police, loot, get some guns and take over neighbourhoods, spout heavily racist stuff. The actions are conflated with he ideology, which is conflated with the very simple and powerful statement ‘Black Lives Matter’. You can’t say ‘BLM but …’, or any alternative. It’s ‘BLM’ or you’re a Nazi, obviously. So don’t mind me while I burn down a police station, if you disagree with that, then you disagree with BLM, then … you’re a Nazi! The emotional embroilment of the very valid issues (slavery, historical oppression) is just to strong, it validates all sorts of actions, and makes it impossible to have a discussion.

    What will probably happen is a ‘quieting’ – literally as people calm down, there’s less tension, then the calmer, more pragmatic members of the 90% will act in a less politicised fashion, and emit more nuanced, reasonable opinion, though it will always be couched in standard leftist language.

    Alternatively, opposing forces could be more comfortable raising their voices. We saw this with the signatories for Freedom of Expression in Harpers. This is something that only very established voices could do, and then, only *together*. I’m not sure how much of a difference it made. Some of them (Pinker) are still facing attempts at cancellation.

    I don’t believe moderate voices collectively have the courage to speak up. It’s not in their nature. They are emotionally sympathetic, and it goes against their instinct. I see it as a little bit cowardly but I won’t judge, it is what it is.

    With Trump out of the way, with companies like Nike coming under attack form their own employees of colour making them think carefully about how hard they push the ‘race button’, with COVID over and people being back to work, with some ‘self awareness’ about cancel culture – things might settle down a bit. But there’s just too much too much to be gained by ‘screaming wolf’ at some suppose injustice – and because there is usually an underlying truth (ie racism and sexism are real), it gets the clicks. Throw in the fact that media around the world are desperate to stay alive, and that they are very well aware that their clickbait headlines drive revenues … this issue is not going away.

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