Brick Red

While Democrats and Republicans have cynically joined forces for a meager “build back better,” the Left mostly fantasizes about tearing it all down.

Brick Red

It should have been the Bernie Sanders Infrastructure Bill.

I don’t just mean that he would have created a more scrupulous and comprehensive program than the one we're currently watching unfold, I also mean that he would have truly loved the assignment. I mean our boy would have killed it. What's more, he would have understood the stakes as a legacy of social democracy. You can't buy that kind of PR. The current administration doesn’t even seem interested in taking credit for the $1.12 trillion they secured for clean water projects, expanded high speed internet, and much-needed road and bridge building and repair. It’s not even the “President Joseph Biden Infrastructure Bill,” it’s the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law”—a concession a friend of mine would call “very little dick-ed of him.”

Contrast that to Donald Trump’s name on 476 million stimulus checks sent out during the pandemic, a move many left-of-center publications and media figures were quick to point out was “unprecedented.” The indignant, "my word" horror at such a breach in protocols of modesty betrayed once again their rarified audience. At least I hope, for their sake, they weren’t trying to reach any sizable chunk of red-blooded-American stimulus check recipients by vilifying the guy sending them money on the grounds that he’s “showboating.” This country is a showboat, and we love a showman.

Moreover, the “Donald J. Trump” on the checks was in typeface, not his seismographic signature, as was originally rumored. It wasn’t even on the endorsement line, but the memo line, and under the words “ECONOMIC IMPACT PAYMENT.” Frankly, I found the final result quite demure, considering the President in question. Even among Trump's most adamant detractors, I never met anyone too disgusted to cash the check. The liberal media figures who fixated on his tacky execution came off like cosseted brats who couldn't pass a Turing Test. (Not to beat a dead horse, but I'm betting "Cowboy Bernie" received much of the same criticism for his "unprecedented" politics.)

Now here are the Democrats, actually in the process of “Build Back Better”—a slogan that sounds like a dementia-stutter (but you get what he’s trying to say), and appears to have been replaced by the more coherent (but less memorable) “Building a Better America.” But however senile or boring the messaging, they’re fulfilling a promise to finally do something to help not just individual Americans through cash relief payments, but the country as a whole; to tackle climate change, inflation, unemployment, and the general state of infrastructural disrepair we’ve been sliding further and further into.

But where is the fanfare? They’ve purportedly put up a few signs where the money is being used, but where? I haven’t noticed any. I suspect the signs are around, and I’ve probably been near one, but signs are easy to overlook, and they only show the local, rather the national, scale of the project. A tree is beautiful, but a forest is sublime.

Biden’s Senior Advisor Mitch Landrieu, who is supervising implementation, certainly seems to think the administration should be bragging a bit:

He’s [Biden’s] entitled to remind people that his predecessor, and the guy before that, and the guy before that, and the guy before that, you know, basically said they were going to do it. We actually got it done. So I think that he deserves a lot of latitude in reminding people how far we’ve come.

So why the lack of public self-promotion? Perhaps it’s not peace-making with Republicans or genteel modesty, but caution that stays the Biden administration from an ostentatious, dare I say “big dick-ed,” victory lap. Maybe they don’t have enough confidence in the project’s success to claim responsibility for something they’re not sure they can do, or do well enough to inspire “buy-in” from their constituents. It’s also a very long-term project, and you don’t usually get credit for things that happen after you’re out of office, especially when your name’s not on it. Plus, there are still problems to be solved. Progressives like Robert Reich insist in The Guardian that “There is no labor shortage,” only a “a shortage of jobs paying sufficient wages to attract workers to fill job openings.” This is hardly an insurmountable obstacle, of course: start a jobs program! (You’re welcome.)

Still, it feels like an opportunity is being missed. If they want credit, they should take it now. They should be sending out mailers. They should have a nationally televised parade. With fireworks. Joe Biden should come out to “Return of the Mack,” or “Jumping Jack Flash.” Something with “Mack” or “Jack” in it; consistent branding is important. Casually mention that bust of Cesar Chavez he keeps in the White House, and bring up the endless pursuit of student debt relief, even if it really would only benefit non-profit and governmental employees. After all, professional “knowledge workers” might be the only millennial voters the Democratic Party could hope to recoup at this point anyway.

Meanwhile, on the Left…

But if establishment Democrats are failing in the politically necessary responsibility of publicly applauding their own ambitions, the putative “Left” is patting itself on the back for a (far-from-realized) libertarian ideology of prefigurative communal living, austerity, deracination, atomization, and anti-modernization. Among the academic and writerly (and, I guess, “podcasterly”) left, you don’t even get the pretense of real-world infrastructural improvement; just a surreal collection of ostensibly utopian thought experiments. A quick survey of articles and books from left publishers and publications shows a pretty clear trend.

Abolition is having a moment, and it appears applicable to everything from which we have experienced suffering. There are monographs against monogamy, family, parenthood, all of which are already so much in decline that it’s hard to imagine wasting the effort to abolish them. Curiously, “heteronormativity” and “whiteness” get lumped in, but their abolition boils down to “don’t be homophobic” or “don’t be racist.” Although it means nothing in practical terms, by announcing yourself as a whiteness and/or heteronormativity abolitionist, you’re winning the competition of who is most committed to being “a part of the solution.” Anything “less” than abolition—“less” here meaning less bombastically slogan-friendly and completely metaphorical—is simply not enough nothing.

There’s been an explosion in calls to abolish prisons and the police. The skyrocketing numbers of even less accountable armed private security guards hasn’t yet triggered a reassessment of the agenda. But there’s also that Rikers for tykes: the public school. What are teachers if not cops with crayons?

Of course, there is no popular support for abolition of any of these things among any segment or demographic of the working class, but that’s clearly not the point. The putative Left will instruct the working class, who obviously cannot be trusted to know what they really want: abolition, autonomy, and experiments in lifestyle minimalism, localism, anti-modernism, and survivalism.

Then there are those shiny new euphemisms for desperation, like “accountability.” A fair and democratic justice system? No use building castles in the sky. A few years ago, AK Press put out the 2020 Lambda Literary Award-winning Love WITH Accountability, explaining that the author “invites diasporic Black people to join her in transformative storytelling that envisions a world that ends child sexual abuse without relying on the criminal justice system.”


“Care” has replaced “resources,” as seen most recently in the liberal-left recommendation of “DIY abortions” (what ancient feminist crones like me used to call “back alley abortions”) in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “Mutual aid” never went away, with many a radical espousing volunteerism and the allocation of skills, labor, and resources within the ranks of the sort of people who don’t have any of the above to spare. Trying to navigate your cunt with a coat hanger and a barrage of doula-types in a theoretical egalitarian ghetto-commune doesn’t sound particularly liberatory to me, but maybe I’m a bit of a princess.

The Dems are dreaming bigger than the Left, for sure. “Small government”—only ever an empty slogan, since it always had to be big enough for indefensible overseas wars and billions worth of mint condition war toys collecting dust on some military base like so many unboxed Funko pops—is even falling out of favor with Republicans these days. Trump promised to bring back the factories, and he did!

Just kidding, we lost about 237,000 manufacturing jobs under Trump, which gives me some hope that he won’t be re-elected, since that promise was a big part of what won him the presidency.

It’s the Left then that seems uniquely focused on demolition. We like to throw bricks, but we’re not building much with them. Why?

Shrinking Dreams

It comes down to this: low morale leads to lower standards. Shrinking dreams leads to diluted aspirations. And dilution leads to petulant denial, and ultimately, rationalization. If you can’t get what you (and nearly everyone else) really want, just slide into powerless, subjugated immiseration and insist that, actually, this is what we really wanted all along. And you know what? Pat yourself on the back for it, kiddo.

The intellectual Left, the erstwhile Sanders base, and associated coalitions created from the Sanders campaign, may or may not be capable of coming to terms with the fact that we are not “Bigger than Bernie,” but we’re certainly coming to terms with our limitations. Alas, the terracotta army of newly-minted socialists organized and at the ready was a very temporary fools’ paradise, and we’re left crawling over the broken glass of localist politics and activistism, throwing and reciting Hail Marys in the labor movement, and spinning our wheels in political protest and “resistance.” The 2020 election hit me pretty hard; I have to think I’m not alone.

The eschatological spirit of the age can only result in infantilization. There is no possibility in the future, no rewards of adulthood. The best we can hope for is an arrested development—Disney adults, nap times, nostalgia. No family to support, no mortgage to pay, but hey, at least you can be a baby forever, living in Vonnegut’s heaven where “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”

The academic, political, and activist Left isn’t alone in its despair and delusion. It’s just that the symptoms of shrinking dreams present more strangely and visibly in the sort of people who think The Combahee River Collective was more than a bunch of lesbians at a coffee shop. Settling for less is the zeitgeist, so I can’t judge them too harshly. Scrolling through social media for apolitical influencers, you’ll find the broader trends rhyming with the “Small is Beautiful” Left.

Abortion isn't the only crisis we aspire to manage with DIY. Grocery bill getting unmanageable? Try foraging, community gardening, urban farms, or even homesteading (chickens are fun!). Can’t afford a home? Consider #vanlife. There are even crowd-sourced apps where fellow nomads can exchange tips on how to skirt the police and avoid tickets, but be prepared for debate! Living in the Wal-Mart parking lot may seem like a dream come true but not all of them allow overnight parking, and you can’t let your dog off-leash. Pet-owners may prefer free campsites, even if it means you’re 40 miles from a grocery store, safe drinking water, or a toilet (check the Bureau of Land Management, they advise).

We are detoxing, cleansing, purging, removing the filth from modernity and civic life as best we can, retreating into smaller and allegedly safer enclaves, living off and with and for less and less and less. Marie Kondo your way out of the clutter of society and the state, the family, the economy, and whatever you do, don’t encroach upon the purity of the fallow with anything so invasive and violative as a “project.” You’re building a soccer field? But that’s a virgin empty lot!

We don’t think highly of ourselves as a species, and we think even less of the things we can make. The world is infected and dying; humanity and society are the disease.

There is an appeal to destructive fantasy, but it’s just that: fantasy. Who doesn’t want to take a hammer to their laptop when it stops working? Almost no one does, though. When you have no power to do anything productive, you’re just more likely to fantasize about doing something destructive. Plus, smashing things is easier and more fun than building things. In the precious little time for leisure we are afforded, the Left likes to play pretend (sometimes professionally).

Wallowing, regressing to childhood, and destruction—or even destructive fantasies—won’t create a better world. Surviving is not thriving, nor does it pave the way for anything better.

We’re gonna need to save a few of those bricks.

Amber A’Lee Frost is a writer and erstwhile podcaster living in Los Angeles.