“We need to learn, or relearn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree—on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication.” – Mark Fisher
From Marx and Engels proclaiming the “history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle,” to Carl Schmitt writing that “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy,” great thinkers from across the ideological spectrum have made sweeping claims about the nature of politics. Now, it’s my turn. (This last remark was satire. Let’s continue.)
There are two ways people approach politics: through a politics of reaction, or through a politics of action. There’s no space for a moral stance here. A good person can approach politics in either of these two ways, and a bad person can do the same. These days, most people are reactors. This is a call to action—a call to do politics, and to do so while understanding politics as an actor. Let’s first look at the characteristics of the reactor versus the actor. This characterization isn’t made to target people, but rather a way of thinking. No one is a reactor or an actor in a fundamental sort of way; they’re simply behaving like one.
Reaction and the Reactor
A politics of reaction is individualist. Above all, it’s focused on appearing “right,” and doesn’t care about achieving goals. Reactors see someone’s politics as another trait, like body type or favorite genre of music. Because they perceive the world and the people who inhabit it as stagnant, their politics are rigid. They (somewhat arbitrarily) pin “ideologies” on people like labels, then judge people based on said arbitrary labels. One day somebody is a democratic socialist, the next, they’re a Trotskyist, then they decide to become an anarchist, and on and on and on. All the while, they’ve never left their basement and never done anything concrete. All this labeling and posturing, and nothing to show for it. Politics is not about identification with the correct stiff label; politics must adjust to a world that’s constantly in motion.
Because of their worldview, reactors see political opponents as enemies to be defeated instead of potential allies. Even within their own “ideology,” they tend to eat their own, opting for individual moral superiority over collective solidarity. As enemies, reactors are fundamentally weak. Since their entire worldview is a reaction to other modes of thought, they can be totally controlled by those who they are reacting against. Their politics exist only as a reaction to actors. Unfortunately, a lot of our supposed comrades have become reactors, too. A politics of reaction is fundamentally individualist because the motives of reactors, even in groups, are liberal. They’re characterized by a desire to appear intelligent, or even just unique. They want to be titans in the current paradigm, so when they write hundreds of pages of so-called “theory,” there is no call to action. It is an elaborate form of apoliticism to spend time justifying doing nothing. In this way, they see politics as a hobby, not a practice. I don’t care what you call yourself—if you don’t do anything, you’re apolitical.
Action and the Actor
A politics of action should be collectivist. An individualist politics of action is not encouraged. Pure individualism is not of the populist left. A politics of collective action cares about achieving goals—not at all costs, but with set principles. These principles aren’t set in stone, but are merely a framework to order thought. If an actor seeks to achieve goals without principles, they forget the big picture and fall into adventurism. This adventurism manifests in ideology-hopping, an individualist conception of the political focused on moving between labels in a conceited display of intellectual plumage. We reject an ideology-centric view of the political. An actor can characterize their politics as an ideology, but doesn’t need to. “Ideology” is an overblown construct. People can call themselves what they want, but should be judged by what they do, the effectiveness of their actions, and how well they adhere to their principles. We must build solidarity with our companions, crafting the sort of ecosystem of political thought that the left so badly needs. Instead of treating leftism like an inclusive club, we must treat it as it’s meant to be—as a collective banner under which we march toward the liberation of all people. We don’t break each other down; we build each other up, standing together, fighting together.
The Left Has Fallen Into Reaction
While commonly associated with the “right,” the modern left has fallen into reaction. Though this can be partially blamed on the proliferation of liberalism, the left’s shift from a group of actors to a group of reactors is a broader phenomenon. It’s characterized as well by the similarly stark shift from collectivism to individualism. Leftists constantly moralize, seeing personal flaws as akin to structural ones. If Russia was populated by the leftists of present-year America, after all, they’d likely have ignored Vladimir Lenin because he had “problematic” views about X, Y, or Z. This hyperindividualism leads to a focus on people and personal qualities instead of systems.
Case in point was the reaction to Bernie Sanders appearing on The Joe Rogan Experience. This was a colossal win for the left. Sanders presented progressive politics in a convincing manner to millions of people, who beforehand had likely only heard corporate propaganda about “socialist” boogeymen. Sanders even managed to convince Joe Rogan himself of a few things. But what should have been cause for celebration created internal division. Many were up in arms, furious because Sanders had talked to a transphobe. Indeed, Joe Rogan has said things that any good lefty should find objectionable, but this reaction missed the point entirely. In these circles of leftist reactors, little was said about the positive work a potential Sanders administration would do for all marginalized groups (including trans people), or how in introducing progressive ideas to millions of people, he was laying the groundwork for a shift away from transphobia in the larger audience.
Of course, this shouldn’t be surprising. An analysis like that comes from looking at actions, broader politics, and collective betterment. This is all lost on a reactor, who cares about the personal flaws of Joe Rogan—not the systemic implications of Sanders appearing in front of millions to present himself in his own words. This incessant individualism has become inescapable. Venomous labeling is now much preferred over local community-building. There’s little excitement on the left. On the rare occasion a cause for hope does present itself, the left fights among itself until the excitement goes away. Usually, new and exciting things commit the cardinal sin of not being “radical” enough. Subsequently, the American left as it stands now holds little to no power whatsoever, and the spirit of the modern American left is almost entirely disjointed.
These aren’t new criticisms, in fact, many far smarter than I have discussed these issues. Best among them was Mark Fisher in “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” He describes the new fear of participation which comes from the dogmatic moralizing of our peers, the elitist attitude of the modern left, and, of course, the utterly repulsive state of online leftism. From looking at the younger, mostly online left, it appears many of them believe people will come to the left on their own, and anyone who doesn’t (for any reason) is a bad person. If we’re to make any headway, we have to switch this individualistic attitude to a political approach based on action.
This is our fundamental task: not fixating on labels, but working to build a better world for ourselves and those who come after us. We should welcome new or prospective leftists with open arms, understanding that they may struggle at first, just as we did, but also knowing nearly everyone has the potential to be on our side, and with patience, not policing, we can make progress and change minds. Our community should be an inviting one. Together, we can make it so. What can we do? We need to move away from revenge-fantasy-oriented leftism, and toward a leftism that truly loves normal people, appreciates the culture of our base, and most importantly, is of our base.
We often forget the words of the late Michael Brooks, to “be ruthless with systems; be kind to people.” We’d be wise to remember them.
By Joseph Kay
Illustration by Yoo Young Chun
this articulates so wonderfully the state of the left today! very illuminating, thank you!