"People evidently are aware that their minds are carrying a heavy load, which wearies them with its weight..." - Lucretius
The right-left political spectrum has devoured the complexity of contemporary life, flattening all political, economic, social, and cultural views onto a continuum that serves as a powerful ideological tool of the neoliberal center. Sometimes this is obvious, as when The New York Times describes Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren together as “very liberal.” But there are countless other ways in which the spectrum is confused and confusing, and ultimately a hindrance to intelligible political discourse.
One trap for the Left is that “spectrum thought” encourages a kind of maximalism in the conceptualization of what the very designation “left” means. There is thus a “left” position on economic redistribution, immigration, gender, policing, the family, etc., and to be “on the Left” means holding all of these positions. There are open debates about what constitutes the left position on some of these topics, but most participants in them understand what the more commonly held position on the Left is and take that to be representative. The heterodox position, meanwhile, is then labeled—often with a great deal of vitriol—more “conservative.”
One truly wild pathology of the present moment is that whole publications have sprouted in the void created by the Left’s maximalism—“economically left but culturally right” outlets that happily meld dissident leftists and friends of Peter Thiel. Once again, the spectrum paradigm confuses a proper critique here: the problem is not that the new Right takes conservative positions on issue X, or echoes DeSantis’ flailings about woke-ism, but that in their very solutions (Ahmari’s workerist Trumpism, Lind’s new anti-elitist coalition, Cass’s sectoral bargaining), they are selling snake oil. If it were simply that they held more socially and culturally moderate or conservative viewpoints, but were still economically progressive, they would not be so hostile to labels (leftist, socialist, etc.) that represent economic ideas and political traditions to which they outwardly express sympathy.
This tendency too echoes the maximalism it reacts against. There is a “common sense” (more often than not, right-leaning) position on social issues that it aggressively defends against the absurd proclamations of “lifestyle leftists.” On both sides, then, we are prodded to hold the “correct” positions on every issue under the sun, as if political success depends upon the ability of masses of people to engage in “the discourse” like opinionated podcasters (one hazard of the “populist moment” being more niche media creation than political organization).
At the most basic level, the compulsions to maximalism just create the worst kind of “political” people, the kind that edge out the normal ones from participating in politics. But for the Left in particular, the present maximalism poses a particular conundrum: a whole range of positions on social and cultural issues—some majoritarian, some radically fringe, many in between—have been appended to the more fundamental focus on economic redistribution, which both makes economic redistribution seem like one issue among many and also limits the number of people who can “properly” be supportive of that redistribution. That is obviously a tricky position for a movement that aims to be of and for the vast majority.
Some people solve that problem by saying the Left should avoid minoritarian causes altogether; others that some balance between minoritarianism and majoritarianism—the “two poles of democratic socialist politics,” according to Jacobin editor Shawn Gude—is necessary. Still others, members of what some might call the “ultraleft,” champion causes simply because they think they are right, not because they are or are not “popular” at any given time.
There is yet another option here, a path usually not taken either out of fear of being on the wrong side or an understandable anxiety about seeming ignorant. And that is simply to have no definite opinion about many issues that our media outlets tell us are very, very pressing. Let’s call this path the “socialist minimalist” one.
Take the issue of the family. I doubt many people on the Left actually think we should be doing away with families, but left publications are certainly not shy about promoting the abolition of the family as such. No matter how you slice it (and I know how “nuanced” the yawning gap between slogan and ostensible “substance” can be), “abolish the family” is just not a good look for the Left, and it’s an ongoing embarrassment that it is donned with such verve. But Michael Lind’s familism and Gladden Pappin’s family policy are equally embarrassing attempts to put the genie back in the bottle. Faced with these two options, “no thanks” is the most sensible response.
It’s possible nonetheless for socialists to stake out some position on the family that goes to neither extreme but allows for a great deal of latitude in personal preference or allegiance. Socialists should support creating the conditions that would allow people to settle down and have kids if they so choose. What does that mean? High wages, lower rents, good public schools. None of those conditions need incentivize or coerce either family life or the elimination of it. As Lenin said of divorce, “the recognition of the right of women to leave their husbands is not an invitation to all wives to do so!” Similarly, offering people a chance at something approximating a single-breadwinner household is not the same as forcing them into it. What people concretely do with the conditions that would allow them to support a family, including not having a family at all or experimenting with new arrangements for “care and liberation,” is completely up to them.
This is also the basic move of Cedric Johnson’s new book, After Black Lives Matter: though Johnson is critical of Black Lives Matter and the movement to “abolish the police,” his more fundamental task in the book is to change the focus of the conversation from policing to the conditions to which policing responds. It is these conditions that must be “abolished.” Though Johnson has his own views about the particulars of policing in the United States, it must be noted that a wide range of positions on what to do about the police are perfectly compatible with this core tenet. Johnson’s book is bound to receive critical attention for certain claims about the state of racial justice movements today, but of this call to “abolish the conditions,” no one even in the vicinity of the Left could disagree.
This fundamental socialist move is a kind of redirection: “The thing that you say that you want is simply not going to be possible without broad economic redistribution that provides a modicum of personal security for the whole of society.” It is not sexy much of the time. It’s quite repetitive. It ruffles people bound up in spectrum thought. It is also misconstrued much of the time: the ability to support a family can be framed as pro-familism, “abolish the conditions” can be said to distract from the repressive practices of police, and so on. But it is inevitable that liberals and conservatives alike gnash their teeth at socialists, who are (or should be) impassive in the face of many of the diatribes launched at either side.
Louis Althusser once described the materialist philosopher as someone who “always catches a moving train.” His roaming materialist is well-versed in the discourse and can debate the best of them but is ultimately light on ideological baggage, willing to pick up and move on to the next town just “to see, talk, listen.” Whatever one thinks of Althusser, there is something in his “philosophy of the encounter” that speaks to the predicament of the contemporary Left, burdened as it is under the weight of social media opinions and always anxious to say the right thing, with the right words, at the right moment. Socialism is supposed to be liberatory, not just in substance but also in form, and yet the present maximalism weighs it down.
It’s okay not to know. It’s okay to be uncertain. It’s okay, some of the time, simply not to care. Not everything that everyone is yelling about needs a response. This can seem like a moral failure or just sheer exhaustion with the state of politics today, but it can also be a more principled position. Bayard Rustin once articulated this principled minimalism when he said,
Genuine radicalism… is not measured by how loud and abusively one can shout or by the purity and beauty of one’s rhetoric. Rather, genuine radicalism seeks fundamental change through concerted, intelligent and long-range commitment. . . . Obviously there is much wrong with the trade union movement; obviously there is much wrong with black people in the United States; obviously there is much wrong with white liberals; obviously wherever we look we can find fault. But the only result of endless fault-finding is that you end up in a corner with the few people who are as good and pure as you are. It renders impossible the building of a political movement capable of directing its attention to the most basic task of all—the redistribution of wealth.
The socialist wager is that the myriad issues facing contemporary society follow from a more fundamental material inequality and social unfreedom, and that a broad reorganization of society will dissipate concerns once thought to be intractable. Provide people security and freedom, and they will sort out their own problems. There is a certain faith in humanity, in that sense. Though there are undoubtedly reasons to support certain social causes along the road to that reorganization, much of what passes for “urgent” can fall by the wayside, or at least be reframed as downstream of the principled positions that socialists ought to hold.
Benjamin Y. Fong is the author of Quick Fixes: Drugs in America from Prohibition to the 21st Century Binge, out with Verso in July.