Sometime last year I had a conversation with a person I admire very much about leftism since she’s one of the more involved people in the IWW, and I mentioned that one of the biggest things that kept me out of left activism is the terse and really toxically personal infighting. Flash forward maybe a few months and I got heavily involved with a left activist group founded out of a group of really toxic infighters.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about ethics for a bit. My major in college (and frankly my ongoing passion) was anthropology, which is the broad study of humans as a whole. The modern discipline is divided into Linguistics, Archaeology, Physical Anthropology (sometimes referred to as Biological Anthropology), and Cultural/Social Anthropology. Each part of the discipline has its own questions and concerns but as a field that explicitly deals with people in all possible forms across the entire planet and throughout history, there’s an overt need for examining the ethical procedures by which study is done. Anth as a discipline has a history of ethically nebulous figures performing spurious research and is likewise fraught with a century of attempts to counteract these individuals through codes and creeds and coercion. The feuds are as epic and legendary as any across other disciplines, and there’s no sign of a real conclusion so long as the AAA refuses to maintain blacklist powers.
Point is, I sat in a lot of ethics courses where students were kinda uncomfortable with making any strong statements either way and the professor was no dang help. Being involved in general leftism is kind of like that, really. That or the other reaction where every ethical violation no matter how convoluted is trying to be respected at once, and then there’s the whole issue where people decide that their ethical commitments stop at their specific identities and then there’s the whole concern where ethical disagreements should be swept under the rug in the name of preserving the community, which ultimately means less that a community is being preserved and more that the cracks are being waxed over and forgotten just long enough for the whole thing to blow up later.
And it’s all entirely an exercise in futility, since The Discourse itself doesn’t really help anyone, just entrenches whatever ideological point of view can outlast the others as an epistemological fact. One of the other takeaways from anthropological theory courses was that consistently across a century and a half of cultural formation/perpetuation theories there’s rare suggestion that individuals might have agency in the creation or formation of culture. Instead myriad theories assume that culture is essentially too large to ever really be in control of a single person or a single group. A metaphor might be: the French nation created Napoleon, rather than napoleon creating France.
So ultimately leftism and leftist movements might themselves be ridiculously inept and it doesn’t matter since the fate of whether or not leftism succeeds or racism or sexism or homophobia ends is out of any individual group’s hands. Economic forces are probably going to drive us toward something that looks very much leftward simply due to technological development the same way capitalism successfully globalized thanks to the Long Peace created by nuclear weapons and communications technology.
But of course that still leaves us with in-fighty leftist movements. There’s definitely a put-up-or-shut-up element to ongoing involvement, a sort of “hey if you’re really committed you’re gonna be here” kind of morality both for the groups themselves and for the sort of turgid call-out exercises popular among a certain crowd, where anything that feels more like you’re doing something is preferable to feeling like you’re not doing something.
The thing is, struggle sessions are easy. Arguments are easy! Holy shit is rationalization easy. Literally if you don’t want anything to be your fault and you have even a small understanding of what makes people tick it’s incredibly simple to build dozens of justifications for anything you do. Despite my couching anthropological ethical violations as largely historical in nature, this is only the case because present ethics are exactly the sort of wobbly, finicky issues that can be propped up with twigs, leading to pointless repartees between two sides that are both plausibly correct. Ethical violations continue anon, depending on who you’re reading.
What’s hard is creating strong, lasting communities of people who’re mutually invested in each other’s wellbeing. It’s tremendously difficult, even as it’s a patently obvious necessity for any kind of radical organization. There’s several reasons that this is so difficult, and they cross over largely into how consumerist-individualism has thoroughly entrenched a primacy of the self in the modern West combined with an understanding of the internet as a customized content delivery device first, communications platform third, but at their base core leftist groups exist as organizational vectors for a particular political bent. If you’re not a leftist, you’re not in a leftist group. What this means is your entire time and involvement in that group hinges on your political beliefs, which in turn leads to constant reexaminations and redefinitions of what those beliefs are.
An effective counter tactic should at this point become clear: take the politics out of the leftist spaces. Create groups that have reasons to exist beyond leftism itself. Create a set of rules that explicitly bend toward a leftist angle and suppress rightist talk within the group as much as you like, but decenter the politics and you decenter the infighting. Do this and you stand that much better of a chance of creating a space where leftism ceases to be a trial of purity and begins to be understood as simply the way things should be, an unspoken expectation that reaches beyond the rational, argumentative political thought-process and into the centers of the brain that drive cultural creation and interpretation. Do this and create a new culture all our own.