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Circulate Now, Mobilize Later

A eulogy for the left

From my view the left seems to be in good shape. And that’s a problem, because we’re not in good shape, despite what the array of outlets for leftist political criticism or the knowing “LOLs” on left Twitter may suggest. From afar, the scrabbled opposition on the right seems to be the side that’s really out of sorts: GOP congressmen are getting their shit ripped by constituents, that troll Milo Yiannopoulos lost a book deal, and that other troll Donald Trump is making an ass out of himself daily.

Still, in the grander scheme of things, we remain on life support. Yes, we’ve seen some significant and encouraging signs of life, including the incredible turnout for the Women’s March, plans for a women’s strike, grassroots anti-Trump mobilizations, etc. But how accurate of a picture do we have in our heads about the state of “the resistance”?

A lot of what we know about these blips on the heart monitor is dependent on another sign that’s more deceiving than others while still playing a role in everything the resistance does. It would seem there’s been a renaissance of leftist media in the past few years, and the greatest boon to this renaissance has been . . . Trump. Circulation numbers are steadily rising for key segments of the mainstream and leftist press, and more people are reading, sharing, writing for, and subscribing to a cluster of established and emerging outlets that dominate popular leftist criticism in the United States. But is this a legitimate sign of life, or merely a post-mortem twitch mistaken for a heartbeat?

I’m going to do something a little odd here and “break the fourth wall,” as it were, of leftist publishing. Deep down, no one wants to acknowledge or give too much credit to those they compete with for eyeballs and mindshare, but this is important; it affects all of us. There are many great outlets today for solid political and cultural criticism with a leftist tint, from more established venues like New Left Review, The Baffler, Dissent, The Nation, Monthly Review, Mother Jones, CounterPunchAgainst the Current, to smaller or newer, but still great, ones like truthout, Current Affairs, ROAR, Jacobinn+1, The Brooklyn Rail, The New Inquiry, Guernica, Viewpoint Magazine, Boston Review, left turn, Salvage, and, yup, Teen Vogue. (I’m still leaving plenty out here, but you get the picture.)

Basically, it’s crowded “in here,” which is not, on its own, a bad thing. The more leftism the merrier, and it’s all the better that there are distinct flavors and ideological shadings to choose from. But something sticks in the teeth when you look at lists like these; there seems to be an inverse relation between how well the left is doing in the journalism world and how much we’re getting our asses kicked everywhere else. There’s a host of different and intersecting reasons for this, but I want to talk about the one that is most present, the one that has to do with you reading this article right now.

We’ve allowed leftism to become a loose cluster of critical positions orbiting around a general sense of intellectual and consumeristic self-satisfaction.

Here’s my first claim: for too long, we’ve collectively and individually allowed leftism to become a loose cluster of critical positions orbiting around a general sense of intellectual and consumeristic self-satisfaction as opposed to pressure-cooking it down to a core of concerted political actions and commitments. The market for leftist ideas and criticism is something akin to a concentrated mist: refreshing in the moment, but ungraspable, and perhaps hazardous over the longer term. Second claim: this has largely been the result of fundamental changes to the ways we write, share, act, and think that have occurred under the system called “communicative capitalism”—a system that encourages us to communicate more even as the rapid proliferation of new platforms and outlets sucks away the potential for our communications to have any sort of political impact. Third claim: while the writing and publishing left may be “succeeding” by the standards set by communicative capitalism, we’re actively feeding the mechanisms by which communicative capitalism makes us obsolete.

The left has always relied on “organs” for basic functions of its many political bodies (here we’ll stick to print and typed media, but this also includes radio, video, illustrations, art, etc.). There’s a beautiful and dusty history to publications like New Masses, The Militant, The Daily Worker, and The Partisan Review in the days of the “Old Left, succeeded by the New Left Review (itself the product of a 1960 merger between The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review), politics, Dissent, Socialisme ou Barbarie, The Socialist Register, Monthly Review, The National Guardian, In These Times, Mother Jones, etc., to say nothing of anarchist zines and liberal pillars like The Nation and The New Republic.      

Take a cursory glance at some of the older issues of these and many more publications, and note our recent intellectual lineage. Some of the writing is incredible, some of it sucks, but one thing stands out immediately. These media outlets, representing different ideological factions and causes, never let you forget how impressively goal-oriented they are. Their communicative goals include, but aren’t limited to: introducing a working left agenda to moldable “publics”; cultivating ways of viewing the world consistent with core leftist principles; providing a public forum for key arguments and strategies to be debated; organizing targeted readerships (specific geographic, class, employment-based, etc. demographics) and mobilizing resistance movements with urgent objectives (strikes, unionization, congresses, positions to take on elections and wars, “the revolution,” etc).

Please resist the urge to write this question off as the ignorant burbling of an idealistic wag: What are the goals of the typing and publishing left today? If we are, independently or collectively, organs of a political body, what is our function? Even as a minor participant in written leftism, I have the same knee-jerk responses to this question that most would have. Our function is to critique: to expose the unseen workings of unjust power, to enlighten and “sway public opinion.” Our organs take in the world’s faults and explain them through a mode of political criticism that, for all its variations, is informed by more-or-less shared notions of anti-capitalist resistance. We in the left publishing world largely agree that the capitalist political economy is far-reaching, evil, and violent, and that forms of injustice (like discrimination, persecution, exploitation, etc.) are perpetuated by broad social-historical forces whose traces are present in many institutions and traditions today. This core critique feels pretty consistent with the work done by radical publications of the past.

But this hard work, the work of critique, doesn’t really qualify us as organs. Even if they were entirely unrealistic, the critiques from organs in bygone eras were oriented toward targeted groups achieving tangible goals. Today, by contrast, it’s seemingly a given that critique is an end in itself. The implied, intangible goal of “raising public awareness” is enough, and we generally assume all the conventional measures of media success—popularity, traffic, virality, circulation boosts—are a useful stand-in metric for attaining that goal. And with an abundantly supplied market for left critique, achieving this goal inherently depends on strategies of product differentiation—or, to borrow an ever-apt phrase from the Freudian lexicon, the narcissism of small differences.

The leading venues for political criticism all seek to differentiate themselves through rhetorical style, layout aesthetic, and, to some extent, theoretical affiliations. And they have every market incentive to push these second-order distinctions over the advancement of any clear and overarching visions of what the world should be and how to go about changing it. And as producers and consumers in this marketplace of political criticism, we’re encouraged not to tie ourselves down to one look, but to explore and cherry-pick arguments from all over in a way that expresses the depth and variation of our leftism while confirming that leftism itself has become just that—a marketplace.

The function of an organ is defined by the body it serves. Without a body, it’s just greasy tissue. So, perhaps the better question is: what body (or bodies) are we serving? Is there a body at all, or has that question become, in an all-too literal sense, immaterial to us? Behind the thousands of faceless “likes” and “favorites” and shares and subscriptions, is there a thunderous thing with teeth and fists? Is there, at this moment, for instance, a discernible body of and for socialism that we, as organs, are helping to sustain? I suspect not. Almost all twenty-first-century evidence suggests, instead, that the bodies we like to think we’re commanding are disjointed, dispersed, and shapeless. In fact, they’re not bodies at all, just a thousand points of light trying to outshine each other in cold, dead space.

The function of an organ is defined by the body it serves. Without a body, it’s just greasy tissue. 

Which means we are not organs. At best, we’re organs in vitro, suspended on our own, connected to nothing, taking in raw material through one rubbery ventricle and passing through another some smart, different-looking sludge that falls on the floor, splotch.

Two things: (1) Marxist theorist Jodi Dean has provided some of the most illuminating studies of how “communicative capitalism”—the marriage between neoliberalism and our jungle of mass and social media—has created multiple traps from which the “academic and typing left” can’t seem to escape; (2) you should be reading Jodi Dean. For the sake of space, we’ll just proceed assuming a shared beginner’s understanding of neoliberalism as, in David Harvey’s words, a “counterrevolutionary project” cooked up and “carried out by the corporate capitalist class . . . [who] felt intensely threatened both politically and economically towards the end of the 1960s into the 1970s . . . [and who] desperately wanted to launch a political project that would curb the power of labor.” Across the globe, this project has taken many discrete forms, infiltrating bodies politic and, like a virus, restructuring their DNA to destroy the tissue of Keynesian liberal democracy and communism alike. It has likewise reconfigured the playing field in the writing world, bigly.

One of the central goals of the neoliberal project was to replace collective ways of living with thoroughly individualized ones. Collective social and political formations (labor unions, mass movements, etc.) were dethroned by the righteousness of solitary pursuits (reclaiming the “right to work,” becoming your own boss in a gig economy, fighting discrimination as a personal matter, etc.). Collective ways of taking the world in (reading major newspapers, going to the movies, mass marketing, or otherwise “tuning in” with the rest of the nation at designated times) gave way to a utopia of personal accommodation (binge watch whatever and whenever you want, personalize all commodities, follow whichever blogs or magazines fit your tastes, control your content as you move through space walled off by tiny earphones).

In this new, deeply individualistic media surround, once power has been successfully transferred from collective doing and being to a burning desire for hyper-customized choice, once that has become the gold standard of living well, then we’re forever playing on neoliberalism’s turf. Neoliberalism has successfully engineered our desire for an ideal of freedom molded from pre-existing models of consumer choice (“have it your way”), self-care (“because you’re worth it”), and personal uniqueness (“be together, not the same”), and it will always be able to provide more avenues for fulfilling that desire. This absolutely applies to the world of writing and ideas, which appear to us in an endless, Matrix-style candy store from which we can choose whatever we need to suit whatever we want to be at any given time.

As Dean points out, this process is increasingly embedded in our hard- and software. Mass production of digital revolution technologies (computers, the internet, digital and smart phones, etc.) have provided the perfect media environment for neoliberalism to materialize these changes to humanity in the form of communicative capitalism. And it’s not hard to see how such changes have profoundly altered the market for leftist thinking and political criticism. As a marriage between new technologies and the neoliberal project, communicative capitalism gets us to buy into, become dependent on, and even celebrate the things that are wiping our political resistance off the map.

Communicative capitalism opens up more opportunities for the left to communicate, to publish, to reach and “connect” with people, while also ensuring that such activities actually strengthen the very beast we love to think about overthrowing. This isn’t just because our surfing, clicking, and communicating are providing digital marketers and data harvesters with new revenue streams and profit centers. The real tectonic shift here is the creation of a digital universe, a realm where people can play out the fantasy of democracy while growing evermore detached from the “real world” of neoliberal politics. Leftist political criticism in the twenty-first century, like everything else that circulates through our datastreams, is fundamentally caught up in, and restructured by, the physics of that universe.

The first law of physics in the universe of communicative capitalism is the fetishization of Capital-D Democracy, which it uses as a marketing tool. “New media” invite us to participate (log in, communicate, click, share, post, buy, etc.) under the banner of democratized access (everyone can join) to democratized information (everything is searchable) and the realization of a truly democratic public sphere (everyone has a voice). This flexible bit of brand sloganeering promotes a liberal humanist ideal of the democratic digital universe as a place where pluralism reigns, where we all have different spaces to express ourselves and connect with people and content that suit our different identities and interests. Moreover, it assures us that we’re actually carrying out our democratic duties of communicating, speaking out, deliberating, and sharing (more so than ever before) while also ensuring that our politics are limited to just that: the circulation of content. “In this mediated dimension,” Dean writes, “politicians, governments, and activists struggle for visibility, currency, and, in the now quaint term from the dot-com years, mindshare. On the other hand . . . institutional politics, the day-to-day activities of bureaucracies, lawmakers, judges, and the apparatuses of the police and national security state . . . seem to run independently of the politics that circulates as content.”

The real tectonic shift here is the creation of a digital universe, a realm where people can play out the fantasy of democracy while growing evermore detached from the “real world” of neoliberal politics.

Now, this isn’t to say that all digital politics is useless and that all leftist criticism that does the bulk of its circulation online is purely cerebral “slacktivism.” Digital technologies have indeed made some significant political action possible. And, of course, things have gotten particularly interesting with Trump, who actually does seem to be greatly affected by what goes on in the anything-goes world of the internet. But that doesn’t mean that the left can pretend it isn’t, like everyone else, still caught in this perverse and debilitating system.

We are facing a media market and a political arena in which communication aggressively comes hither as an end in itself, alongside a purely instrumental model of “democracy” as the circulation of content with no need to promote action. We are trying to write our way out of a networked system that has already captured our writing as another commodity for people to choose from, as consumers, in order to suit their individual, not collective, tastes in leftist critique. This isn’t to say that failure is a foregone conclusion, though; it is, however, to say that, in order to begin conceptualizing how we might actually win in the marketplace of ideas, we need to take full and honest measure of how the game board tilts.

While the age of Trump is bringing more eyeballs to our articles and more subscribers to sustain our efforts, that has little to no impact on the much larger problems confronting leftist criticism and politics under communicative capitalism. In fact, such provisional victories in the digital mediasphere might actually be bad if they lull us into the false sense that things are going smoothly and that our ideas and arguments are becoming gradually more ubiquitous. When contrasted with historic levels of inequality, perpetual war, climate instability, the Trumpian takeover of American government, etc., the very notion that greater circulation corresponds to leftist success proves that the digital universe is every bit as disconnected from everything else as Dean claims.

“Traffic,” “circulation,” and “uniques” are the expressed goals of any publication in the digital age. These are the metrics keeping most publications alive. But we are suicidally misguided to think that these things correspond to any graspable success for the left itself or its internal “battle of ideas.” To make this sobering point more sobering, we can use these same metrics to note that the top leftist publications are still getting traffic-whipped by morons like Tomi Lahren or even Rush Limbaugh.

Even worse, for venues of leftist political criticism, there’s a general sense that we can gain traffic now, build up a base, and mobilize later. But, again, one has to wonder if increasing our circulation corresponds to building a base that can actually be mobilized when “the time is right.” My reluctant but unambiguous verdict here is that no, we are not. Otherwise, what the hell have we been waiting for? Maybe we’ve already registered awareness of this at some gut level already, and we realize at bottom that “getting more traffic” is just an excuse we can use to always defer action we know won’t come—a can we’re able to perpetually kick down a dusty, desert road to never.

For the new generation, socialism is rising as a forceful feeling, yes, but it’s still incredibly nebulous. So nebulous, in fact, that many of us millennials still wanted to see if it could attach itself to, and become concrete through, the resistant body of a thoroughly neoliberal Democratic Party. It can’t. And it must now be called forth into other viable forms that can be followed and supported, or else it will join the other wandering souls of bodiless leftist ideas that give us all plenty to write about and little to hope for.

Just acknowledging these obstacles for leftist political criticism won’t make them go away. To fight for a leftist future while combating the traps of communicative capitalism, we need to do more, and some of it won’t be pleasant. It goes without saying that leftist criticism can’t just point to or encourage action; it needs to be steeped in it from the beginning. In the same vein, publications can’t just be venues for critical reflection on political action—they must be vital organs whose functions include mobilization, strategizing, and on-the-ground collaboration with the grassroots.

Leftist critics need to get out of their head right now (yesterday, in fact) the idea that more and different critique is an end in itself. There will always be opportunities to make newer and better critiques in the media market of communicative capitalism, but this doesn’t address the basic problem that there is now, by most measures, a glut of good criticism out there already. Did any of it secure a victory for Sanders over Clinton? Did it stop Trump? Did any of it stall the prison-industrial complex or stop ICE raids under Obama and now Trump?

Lack of critique is not our problem—more and better will not alone be enough to strike back against these grim forces. And the more that we each individually entertain our egoistic desire to be distanced intellectual leaders of a movement through our criticisms, the less we’ll be able to see things as they really are, and to call them by their true names. For all the talk of growing resistance, there’s no serious connection between leftist critique and some consistent movement—yet. And, as of this moment, we critics are carrying on like thousands of Don Quixotes, all charging in different directions with no one behind us. (And, yes, I’m as guilty of operating under such delusions as the next person—that’s the point.)

Lack of critique is not our problem—more and better will not alone be enough to strike back against these grim forces.

Once we’ve set aside the seductions of memeing, we must understand and take seriously that we are embarked on something far more momentous. We’re now plunged into the thick of a battle royale for the soul (and body) of the left. How do we contribute to summoning the actually-existing political bodies for which we can be vital organs? How do we begin to coax forth something solid, consistent, from the hazy and dispersed leftist non-body? How do we throw down forms of political criticism that actively refuse to be casually absorbed by permanently scattered individuals in an intellectual market of leftism that, under communicative capitalism, most resembles a thrift store where different brands can be mixed and matched to each consumer’s liking?

For starters, we need more goal-oriented journalistic campaigns, campaigns that repeatedly fuse critical positions and political demands with clear and present visions for mobilization. Campaigns that collaborate with and harness existing mobilization efforts. As with political journalism of the past, which heavily featured local labor leaders, political actors, and imminent concerns, our campaigns should more collectively strive to summon forth an urgency in readers whose reading activity embroils them in a drastic political landscape that is unfolding right now (not just in abstract arguments or visions of a distant past or future). To capture the critical now-ness of our daily reading, for example, our campaigns should continue to make the work and positions of activists like Aly Wane, Lucas Benitez, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor as much, if not more, of a recurring focus than Debord, Rorty, and Gramsci.

At historical moments of extreme tension, like our own, such campaigns helped bring forth, starting with relatively small student protests in ’68 Paris, the mobilization of a general strike demanding worker and student rights, antiwar measures, and the potential resignation of a national leader. Such campaigns, which would eventually help relay and articulate demands for policy changes and community action, grew out of, and learned from, local grassroots efforts by black civil rights activists organizing the boycotts, sit-ins, “freedom rides,” etc. Regardless of how things changed drastically after WWII, such campaigns helped foment an American labor movement with considerable communist influence.

Perhaps another byproduct of a revived on-the-ground focus for leftist political journalism will be the need for individual outlets to concretize actual schools of thought and strategy that can be differentiated from each other. Perhaps, in other words, people must be encouraged to take sides. This is not because our leftist infighting and jockeying for position is somehow more important than the larger battles we are collectively facing. Rather, we may very well recognize that the stakes are so high now that this is an unavoidable move, one of the few things we can actually do to draw ourselves and our readers out of the communicative capitalist haze, to summon ourselves into working, organized leftist bodies. It may be one of the only ways left to suit up and take leftist politics out of the neoliberal marketplace of circulating content and put it back onto the battlefield, where it belongs.