Default blue, red emphasis added.
What must be understood is that powerlessness itself creates the condition for further powerlessness. Powerlessness is both effect and cause. It’s counterintuitive but true: power is frightening to this who have never had it. Power has consequences. Powerlessness is a comfortable place to hide; if you have no ability to effect change in the world, you cannot really fail. Your ideas never make contact with reality and so there is no chance that they will be put to the test. And power, once taken, must be held, so that work leads only to more work. Far easier and safer is to luxuriate in powerlessness. [emphasis added]
Armed with powerlessness in the material plane, practitioners of this brand of politics concentrate almost all of their energies into the types of interpersonal politics that, for many, characterize left activism. You may not be able to slow global warming, but you can ruin the reputation of someone else in your bloc. You may not be able to fight imperialism, but you can fight amongst yourselves. When fighting capitalism, you feel useless; when hurting an individual person you may feel a certain rush. [emphasis added] You may combine this with the natural human tendency to exclude others, the way that we define who’s in through reference to who’s out. The result is a toxic tendency to denounce rather than to include.
Left politics is about structures, not people, and we have developed a vocabulary to match – white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism. But we do not have a structural focus in our internal debates; we have the opposite.
The specific mechanisms of unhealthy intra-movement politics have traditionally been multiple, typically involving splinter groups, secret meetings, deliberately obstructionist proceduralism, redbaiting, adoption of consensus-based decision making, and similar. I have lived through all of these in one form or another. Today, I find that the particular mechanism involves making accusations that a comrade is guilty of racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, ableism, or similar. This tactic is particularly prevalent because of a quirk in how we discuss those topics today: in the day-to-day scrum of real-world argument, many on the left act as if they must treat any claim of offense as legitimate in order to believe that such claims are ever legitimate.
Typically undertaken in a spirit of self-defense, this attitude treats all claims of a specific type of offense (whether racism, sexism, etc) as equally strong. This means that accusations of racism or sexism or similar are pursued even in those instances where the evidence of such offense is scant or nonexistent. And precisely because the world is indeed full of bigotry, and because the left must oppose it, these claims take on remarkable destructive power when wielded carelessly or in the pursuit of organizational power. Such accusations will often be correct, after all, considering the world we live in.
But there is also no doubt that the power of these accusations is often wielded cynically and recklessly. The left cannot abandon its commitment to fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, and other bigotries, or else it deserves to lose; it cannot entertain every cynical, exploitative accusation of these bigotries, or else it cannot possibly win. That there is wide righteous middle ground between these options is obvious; we could zealously oppose bigotry and reject false claims of bigotry at the same time. That there is currently no mechanism within the left that can steer us into that middle ground is obvious too.
The best fix for these issues is to go offline, as the online space imposes zero cost on making frivolous accusations in a self-interested way. There is a certain accountability and authenticity inherent to the face-to-face world. I have always valued the political uses of presence. But I have also seen far too many IRL left groups devolve into horrific infighting to believe that the real world is immune to these problems.
The left has had power in the past, in many places and at many times. We could have power again. The 20th century saw dozens of left movements take real material power, sometimes with smaller numbers than the American socialist left employs today. But times have changed. In particular, armed struggle is no longer a viable option. The state’s violent potential is far greater than it once was, relative to that of any realistic insurgency movement. Havana can no longer be taken with rifles and a dream. So the left can turn only to people power. There is no alternative path to power. And if we are to attract the masses, current inter-left dynamics cannot endure. Fair or unfair, for good or bad, there is no alternative to fixing what’s broken in the way the left communicates with itself. A true mass movement cannot possibly emerge from a constantly bubbling cauldron of invective, paranoia, and incrimination.
Until then, begin your analysis by recognizing that many people on the left want to lose. And so they will.
Of course one of the most common axioms I've seen in internet writing about an American left is that there is no real American left. That may even be true, though a lot depends on how people define the what is left with connection to America. Are we talking new left, old left? Progressive? Liberal? For people who think of themselves as on the right this is all collapsed lazily into "cultural Marxism" by the kinds of people who (excepting guys like Roger Scruton) have probably never even read a single book by a single author of the Frankfurt school. But then I increasingly have doubts that 20-somethings who say they're interested in critical theory have read even three paragraphs of what Adorno had to say about jazz, any given three ghastly paragraphs of what he had to say about jazz.
One of the things, as a moderately conservative sort, I've seen in the last twenty years is that Anglo-American left advocates have done something that an older guy I knew in college decades ago said was the bane of American political life, that radicals and reactionaries had hijacked political discourse in a way that moved the boundaries for a negotiable center off of the field. If radicals and reactionaries revise history so as to say that even JFK was a warmongering hawk (which, frankly, he was if we're going to get specific and, no, I don't think fantasies that he was going to pull us out of Vietnam matter since he did get assassinated) and if conservatives can lambast Reagan for having acceded to talk with Gorbachev then that's just a few small for-instances of ways that people on some strand of the left and right can redefine the left or right in such a way that nobody fits the bill.
An unfortunate side effect of contemporary intra-left polemic can be that people who self-identify as progressive forget that if we turn the clock back a century progressives could be every bit as racist and brutal as Republicans are thought to be now. For that matter the legacy of slavery tends to be so defined in white and black terms that slavery in literally all other global, ethnic, social, political and economic terms doesn't get discussed. Couldn't we say the entire American academic system runs on a slavery system if we factor in the sheer enormity of student debt, lending systems, and the way work gets distributed? Would American academics concede they are part of a gigantic and callously indifferent slave system? That seems doubtful, though polemics about how neoliberalism has corrupted the university system are certainly out there.
There's more than one way to have a master/slave dynamic and if within the left/progressive scene people imagine they are not part of an elite despite having gone to elite schools and gotten elite degrees and having any formal education beyond high school simply because they didn't vote for Trump then this might get at another aspect of why a self-identifying left fails, or even at why some left writers say there isn't even really a "left" in American political life.
And in that sense intra-left battles over who is genuinely left and who has an unexamined role participating in a cultural elite/culture industry can't go away because it's the nature of human beings in the United States.