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.

2 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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