Sectarianism that is fuelled by the very act of being vocally sectarian
August 13, 2018 9:23 AM   Subscribe

“When radicals attack each other in the game of good politics, it is due at least in part to the fact that this is a place where people can exercise some power. Even if one is unable to challenge capitalism and other oppressive structures, even if one is unable to participate in the creation of alternative forms of life, one can always attack others for their complicity, and tell oneself that these attacks are radical in and of themselves.” The stifling air of rigid radicalism, an excerpt from Joyful Militancy.
posted by The Whelk (38 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I'm only halfway through and I'm having to stop myself from jumping up at work and shouting YES YES THAT
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:38 AM on August 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

Yep. We see this even in the relatively low-stakes world of fandom these days, and it breaks my heart. It struck me several years ago how much easier it is to excoriate a fannish institution for its failings with respect to marginalized people than to grapple with the big powerful institutions and systems that govern so much more of our lives. You feel bad about something; you may not be able to do anything else, but you can make a fellow-fan feel worse! Which is not to say that, e.g., a call-out is never justified, just that one's perspective can get strangely skewed vis-a-vis the people you're holed up with.
posted by praemunire at 9:44 AM on August 13, 2018 [14 favorites]

I often wonder if the tendency they name "rigid radicalism" isn't, in part, anyway, what killed Mark Fisher. (See: "Exiting The Vampire Castle.")
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:56 AM on August 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I feel like this article does a great job of standing up a bunch of strawmen and knocking them down with vigor.

Eg, In many circles, it has become common to say of an individual or group, “they have good politics.”, weasel-worded and passive-voiced as a way to introduce an entire screed on people who say these sorts of things.

Anyways, it feels like this person is unhappy that people do things like telling Goldman she can't dance. I agree that that's dumb and presupposes an unnecessary level of groupthink in revolutionary movements. But to extend this, to say that people who are militant about actual problems are wrong, that is egregiously over the line. This article makes no differentiation here because it's not interested in being coherent or thought out so much as indulging in a call out of its own, ironically.
posted by TypographicalError at 10:10 AM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't know. This doesn't feel like anything I'd call a "call out".

This phenomenon cannot be exhaustively described, because it is always mutating and recirculating. It cannot be reduced to certain people or behaviors. It is not that there are a bunch of assholes out there stifling movements and imploding worlds. In fact, this vigilant search for flawed people or behaviors—and the exposure of them everywhere—can be part of the toxic process. No one is immune to it. It is widely felt, but difficult to talk about, so there’s not much point in shouting about it. It is more like a gas: continually circulating, working on us behind our backs, and guiding us towards rigidities, closures, and hostility.

It feels far more like a reasoned call for consciousness.
posted by philip-random at 10:22 AM on August 13, 2018 [16 favorites]

people who are militant about actual problems are wrong, that is egregiously over the line

If, in your militancy, you find yourself spending a big chunk of your time and energy attacking people in your community for their personal failings rather than going after the holders of real power and the systems that enable them, your zeal may be getting perverted.

(This is not, incidentally, a problem unique to the left.)
posted by praemunire at 10:28 AM on August 13, 2018 [18 favorites]

When people are reduced to swinging their fists, that's what they'll do. And they can only strike out at someone close enough to be hit. That's why children will scream I hate you at their parents -- not because they do, but because nothing else is there to absorb their anger.

After the election, I accepted some anger that happened to come my way because I knew I was only a substitute. I think those of us who have a higher level of privilege in this society have to accept this. And yet, when people joke (on the square) about guillotines, I think about Philippe Egalite. I think about him a lot these days.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:29 AM on August 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

One Trot faction, sitting in a hall,
One Trot faction, sitting in a hall,
And if one Trot faction, should have a nasty squall,
There'll be two Trot factions, sitting in a hall.

Two Trot factions...
posted by ocschwar at 10:30 AM on August 13, 2018 [13 favorites]

critiquing and fighting capitalism, white supremacy, and policing

These three things are not equal. White supremacy cannot be reformed, it needs rooting out. Capitalism and policing are problematic, but not inherently evil - both need reform. And frankly - having studied times of history before both capitalism and policing - no one really wants to live then. It was a time of hunger and rampant inter-personal crime and violence. Police harass people. But before they existed, women were regularly raped, children beaten (and raped), and things stolen. I now live in a city where a female-presenting person is largely safe walking alone late at night - and that's because we do have policing. We need better and less racist policing, but not none.
posted by jb at 10:36 AM on August 13, 2018 [14 favorites]

I feel like this article does a great job of standing up a bunch of strawmen and knocking them down with vigor.

I don't! Whenever anyone makes the argument that hey, we could stand to be assholes to each other a little less, people are breaking down and leaving, it gets read as some kind of attack on left politics rather than a conversation among activists, even though people are breaking down and leaving.

I've been part of healthy, good activist projects and activist projects that were good enough, but I've also seen a number of situations where people burned out or were driven out, and those people were usually the hardest workers and/or from marginalized communities.

I've definitely experienced the pressure to tear things down rather than express curiosity about them, and I've definitely been bullied over activist crap - by people I like and basically think are decent humans, even!

For instance: I've had so many, many conversations with fellow activists where I've been all, "Oh I'm so excited about this book/film/project/person" and the knee jerk response is always, "yeah well that sounds shitty because it is bougie/didn't you know that working within the system is politically unacceptable/fiction is a waste of time/etc etc". Very very few people ever start from, "Hm, Frowner is my friend, I don't think they're a waste of time, perhaps even if this idea or book is flawed Frowner is still finding something useful and interesting in it, I wonder what that could be" or "Hm, people often get important ideas even from flawed works, I wonder what Frowner is on about".

That never happens. It's all about competition - someone else is excited about something, so how fast can we shut that down?

And of course conformity - if someone says, "I'm really into this memoir by a Menshevik [I'm making this up, I have never read a Menshevik memoir]", it's important to show the Big Other that we know that the Mensheviks were trash by putting that book down, even if we've never read it and our grasp of the events of the Russian Revolution is in fact rather shaky.

People are mean and competitive in ways that are extraordinarily fatiguing and conformist, and TBH I've withdrawn from a lot of my old activist relationships because it was contributing to my depression. I still do stuff, but I'm sure not close with people like I used to be - I felt like the choice was to pursue my own intellectual interests in comfort or constantly have to defend very ordinary choices from people who mostly didn't know what they were talking about.

And that's not exactly the world's biggest problem to have - I've seen people treated far worse.

This has virtually never been about "call-out culture" or questions of privilege, either. It's just asshole culture, bully culture, conformist culture.

Whenever you say, "hey activists, maybe we could stop being so horrible to each other", folks are quick to assume that you mean "hey, stop being mean to white people". The people who have "been mean to me" in activist culture have always been white, mostly men. I am capable of distinguishing between "hey Frowner, that thing you did wasn't cool, how are you going to fix it" [which has absolutely happened to me] and "oh, you like this book about travel in central Europe between the wars, well it's a shitty book, let me quote you some Guattari about the personality failings of people who read that kind of book".
posted by Frowner at 10:41 AM on August 13, 2018 [81 favorites]

My point in this is that reading is really important to me - probably my favorite thing - and in activist circles, the very place where I'd expect to be able to talk about the books that inform my politics, books and narratives about books have repeatedly been used to bully people. It sounds really trivial, but over many years it adds up to "I read this thing I care about that is informing my thinking, but I'd better not talk about it because people will use it as a way to attack me".
posted by Frowner at 10:47 AM on August 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

I read this article in light of a leftist meme I saw spreading on facebook this week that insisted that the only real activism was direct action and that protests were useless.

"We are encouraged—and we often encourage each other—to wear our politics and our analysis like badges, as markers of distinction. When politics becomes something that one has, like fashion, it always needs to be visible in order to function."

Using Facebook to make your views visible apparently gets an ethical free pass, but going to a protest doesn't. For this sort of militancy, public visibility for the individual is more important than visibility for the movement created by thousands of people taking to the streets.

Direct action ironically is often invisible and the people who do it by and large aren't publishing a bunch of identifying information on Facebook. With politics as spectacle, you get more social points for sharing memes about direct action than for doing it. You get called out on facebook as not having the correct politics if you pass as a normal working cog in society, but in order to do stuff like "losing" the paperwork needed to separate families, you have to pass as a normal cog in society. It's all so backwards and ineffective.

they will be attacked, mocked, and excluded for getting it wrong, even though these people are often the ones that “good politics” is supposed to support: those without formal education who have not been exposed much to radical milieus, but who have a stake in fighting.

Yep, those who are supposedly fighting for the right of marginalized groups are posting stuff on Facebook about how if an immigrant doesn't risk arrest and deportation to throw a brick through a window, they are somehow complicit in what's happening. I'm sure they would argue that marginalized groups are implicitly exempt from throwing bricks through windows, but if that's what you mean, maybe a facile Facebook meme isn't the way to make your point. If what you mean is that white men need to risk their privilege more, then go talk to white men.

When politics circulates in a world dominated by hypervisibility and rigidity, there is a huge swath of things that do not count, and can never count: the incredible things that people do when nobody is looking, the ways that people support and care for each other quietly and without recognition, the hesitations and stammerings that come through the encounter with other ways of living and fighting, all the acts of resistance and sabotage that remain secret, the slow transformations that take years or decades, and all of the ineffable movements and struggles and projects that can never be fully captured in words or displayed publicly.

Yes. I personally feel that living your life in a radical way is more effective than one-time acts, but that's entirely discredited. If you leave Facebook, you are no longer contributing to a terrible dehumanizing platform, but how will anyone know to pat you on the back about it?
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:49 AM on August 13, 2018 [8 favorites]

That's a great essay, and expresses something I've been wanting to say about MetaFilter for a long time but haven't because I know exactly what kind of pushback it gets from the True Radicals (I've known the species for almost half a century now) and I don't have the fortitude to put up with it. But yes, spot on, and I'll just add this: having the right ideas doesn't make you a good person, and the guy who's overenthusiastic about smashing the state may be eager to smash you if you get in his way.
posted by languagehat at 11:09 AM on August 13, 2018 [29 favorites]

I posted an AskMe looking for articles to use with my intro to women's studies students, and I just came across this one: 9 Ways We Can Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist. It reminds me of the OP's article and raises a lot of the same points Frowner does in their comments above.

It's a mandatory course for many students, and although they won't all be interested in continuing with activism, some will. I want them to know that they don't have to be perfect. It's okay to learn as you go, and people who are already established activists can and should be supportive of their learning journey.

Now, that's not to give them carte blanche to get offended if someone points out a lack of awareness of their own privilege, or calls them out if they're not being a good ally, but it should not be a constant round of (as the article in the OP put it) Maoist style self critiquing. And no, I don't think that's a straw man the author has set up. It happens all the time; many of us in this thread have witnessed it. More division is not the answer.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:10 AM on August 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

I think one obstacle in this is the lack of a bright line (in the legal sense) or set of focal points (in the game-theory sense) that demarcate the boundary between acceptable and [lemongrab voice] unacceptable.

There is some point at which shunning is probably valid, as with an actual cabinet secretary overseeing family separation, or a serially abusive activist/artist/whatever. We all sense the truth of that, while recognizing that other behavior (driving a car to work because public transit is not available) can totally get a pass. But then our individual moral compasses are differently calibrated, so we end up shifting to attack mode for something that seems obviously in the red zone for one person but not for another.

This is also why calls for unity are difficult to follow even within a set of people who genuinely oppose infighting. It doesn't tell us what to unify around... and if it did, we'd just fight over that (and that wouldn't be unreasonable behavior for any of the individuals doing it!).

I actually think this is a benefit of organizations like the Democratic Party, despite its famous supposed disorganization. Sometimes leftists annoy me when they revel in liberal-hating purity. Often the never-trump set makes me queasy at just how much conservative horribleness they tolerated until now. But in either case, if you're willing to vote for the donkeys, I'm willing to shut up, at least until society has progressed enough to afford a little more conflict about the particulars.
posted by InTheYear2017 at 11:24 AM on August 13, 2018 [11 favorites]

Thanks for posting this -- just requested the full book from the library.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 11:35 AM on August 13, 2018

when I found my internationalist socialist tendency, one of the rules for anyone joining is that they must immediately found their own faction within the tendency, with the long-term goal of every faction necessarily being the total takeover of the organization as a whole. We will take this requirement very seriously, since any socialist who doesn't have the gumption to start up a faction fight isn't really ready to participate in real socialist politics. It will be expected that every member of the organization will be involved in a large number of interlocking and often mutually opposed factions, as organizing people into your faction will necessarily involve reciprocally joining their factions. Ultimately there will be vastly more factions than members of the organizations, once you take into account all of the meta-factions and meta-meta-factions that emerge from the constellation of individual faction-level negotiations.

Needless to say, members will have to deliver regular performance reports to the central committee, and anyone who is slacking in their efforts to hijack the central committee, or otherwise bend the organization's actions to their faction's will, will be expelled.

You laugh at massively-multitendency polytrotskyism now, but mark my words: the ℵ4th international is the only path toward true communism.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:49 AM on August 13, 2018 [40 favorites]

Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People's Front.
posted by SansPoint at 11:58 AM on August 13, 2018 [13 favorites]

This is just to report to what little is left of the central committee

I have hijacked
the central committee
that was in
the internationalist socialist tendency

and which
you were probably
for factional infighting

Forgive me
it was delicious
so serious
and so meta-meta
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:06 PM on August 13, 2018 [22 favorites]

(This is not, incidentally, a problem unique to the left.)

It is probably not unique to the left, but the folks on the paleo/trad right seem to actually have something that looks awfully like solidarity, if you squint at it a bit. At least to the point of typically doing their infighting and purges behind closed doors. It leads to some awfully strange bedfellows, and it's entirely possible that such a degree of enemy-of-my-enemy thinking isn't really productive in the long run, but damned if it doesn't seem like it gets their various factions what they each want with some regularity. At least often enough to keep everyone in line.

An analogy might be that when the right finds the political winds against them, they tack—various factions will go along with whatever course seems to move them in their desired direction, even if it's not precisely the direction they want to go. (E.g. authoritarian-fascist Christian theocrats allying themselves with a philandering amoral picaroon of a President.) At some point, when they're out of maneuvering room in that direction, they tack again, doing something different... but having in the process moved closer to whatever their ultimate goal might be. The sum of these movements ends up being significant. Meanwhile, organizations on the left seem to love to try to sail directly for their end goal, even if it's directly upwind, and then abuse each other for the resulting lack of progress.

I tend to think the difference isn't truly ideological, because recent right-wing populism has started to cause a greater degree of open conflict than I've ever seen in my lifetime within conservative circles. This seems to support the theory that when you start to embrace the disaffected and give power to those who feel like they've been denied it, they're likely to wield it at the closest possible target.

Intriguingly, because this isn't something that right-wing organizations have ever dealt with (at least, not in UK or US politics recently), they are seemingly pretty bad at it. If the future is dominated by who can 'do populism better', whichever groups can find methods and practices for harnessing the energy of disaffected people—giving them power and voice, but not degenerating into Girondins versus Montagnards and greasing up the guillotine after the first taste of victory—will probably have a significant advantage.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:09 PM on August 13, 2018 [14 favorites]

Suddenly the Sith Lord / Apprentice system seems like a sane approach.
posted by Space Coyote at 12:09 PM on August 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Sure, the ship is taking on water, but we'll be fine."
"Maybe you'll be fine."
"Bail harder!"
"You're just moving water from one side to the other."
"This room is almost dry. I've been working at it for an hour, and you didn't help me one jot."
"Oh, here comes the theory!"
"Don't be so rigid."
"Do you want to die?"
"Only you can save us, right?"
"Guys, guys, fighting isn't helping. Everyone should take a deep breath. We can only fix this problem - whatever it is - if we can take care of one another."
"To enable us to do what, exactly?"
"There is no time."
posted by phrontist at 12:10 PM on August 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

the folks on the paleo/trad right seem to actually have something that looks awfully like solidarity, if you squint at it a bit. At least to the point of typically doing their infighting and purges behind closed doors.

I swear, one of the reasons that basically my only remaining conservative acquaintance on Twitter stays on my reading list is because he reports all the hard-right infighting. It's entertaining, in a grim sort of way. They're actually, literally, cuckolding each other (or so I gather from the headlines).
posted by praemunire at 12:46 PM on August 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

praemunire: once when I had the bad fortune to look at comments on a conservative article, I saw some bright spark complaining that the left always fell in line, but the right just wouldn't put aside its principled arguing long enough to win. And this was in the past two years! I suppose that people who feel threatened would always rather believe that an enemy is monolithic and faceless, that they are the scrappy rebels.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:07 PM on August 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

Anyways, it feels like this person is unhappy that people do things like telling Goldman she can't dance.

In the article they mention Goldman's response morphing into today's shorthand “if I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution."

The answer she put in her biography was:
"I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things."
Which shows more depth and nuance then the article's shorthand quote and the same can be said for this article.

The actual quote is also the inspiration for the name of a slow dance club I host from time to time.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:13 PM on August 13, 2018 [10 favorites]

(The we’re all bad Socialists piece has a nice section on shame and how it’s a complete failure tactic that I think has broad use in other organizations and dynamics)
posted by The Whelk at 1:22 PM on August 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I wanted to like this excerpt, I just couldn't find a way that the article didn't seem like it was saying any critique is unjustified.
Am I really supposed to accept that no-one can do anything wrong in politics? No act of right opportunism can be denounced, because of the horror of shaming someone?
That there is never any value in criticising political choices as tactical or strategic mistakes?

Or am I mischaracterising the book's position? It doesn't make sense to me that they'd argue for a complete abandonment of all political principles, but that's the argument I felt was being made.

Does this article allow me to take any positions unashamedly?
posted by AnhydrousLove at 4:00 PM on August 13, 2018

I should say that I like the DSA article on Bad Socialists a lot more. Would people consider them to be making the same argument?
Personal attacks have no place in politics, we're not here to tear our comrades down but build each other up with support and love. Everyone's made mistakes in their past and what matters is their politics now.
I do think that people's politics now should be criticisable though. It's not all a wash, some views hurt people and exclude other coms, and we need to be able to criticise them and deny them a place in our movements.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 4:47 PM on August 13, 2018

Does this article allow me to take any positions unashamedly?

I'd say it just asks you to take a deep breath and think before cutting lose on the people around you. And if most of your activist energy is being used up in "denouncing acts of right opportunism"/"criticizing political choices", etc. then maybe you should ask yourself why that is, whether it is doing much good/is healthy. It read to me as a (rather needed) call to self-reflection.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:50 PM on August 13, 2018 [13 favorites]

yeah, to me, the article assumes that we have this common enemy (ie: Trumpism etc) and wishes that, when we get frustrated with our "fellow travelers", we remember who we're really, truly, deeply at odds with, and keep our eyes on the prize. As for denying folks "... a place in our movements", well yeah, but I certainly hope that the transgressions in question are of the assholism kind ... as opposed to just not being woke enough (or whatever).
posted by philip-random at 4:59 PM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon: ...when I found my internationalist socialist tendency...

When I found mine, they were like "Now you gotta go out and sell papers," and I was like, "But this sounds like working in a call centre without getting paid. Also, shouldn't we give the papers away?" That put an end to that. Thank goodness.

From Joyful Militancy:

Interviewees include [...] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

Oh, man. She's great. Here's one piece of hers. I can't recommend This Accident of Being Lost highly enough.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 5:39 PM on August 13, 2018

the way to make selling trotskyist newspapers fun is you customize each issue by putting in your own insert where you denounce the other people selling newspapers with you. you know, for being in the wrong faction.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 6:45 PM on August 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

One thing I found kind of annoying recently is I was listening to some Murray Bookchin talks and like 70% of it was him whining about these petty differences with other leftists, when really I just wanted to learn more about what made sense and was important to him. I couldn't take it.
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:59 PM on August 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Re: The Right seeming to be more unified-
I always assumed this had at least something to do with the amount of money that gets funneled their way. It can be a drag and a source of contention to organize a carpool and pay for parking to get to a protest when you don't have millionaires chartering busses for you and your factions, for instance.
posted by biddeford at 11:22 PM on August 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

once when I had the bad fortune to look at comments on a conservative article, I saw some bright spark complaining that the left always fell in line, but the right just wouldn't put aside its principled arguing long enough to win. And this was in the past two years! I suppose that people who feel threatened would always rather believe that an enemy is monolithic and faceless, that they are the scrappy rebels.
I think this is universal, but even as it is a strategic thing to believe, it's also sincere. From a left-wing perspective, the world is overwhelmingly rightist thanks (among other things) to how deeply capitalism and associated inequalities are entrenched. From a right-wing perspective, the world is overwhelmingly liberal because darn near everybody and their grandmother agrees, at least in, to principles of equality and diversity -- even as conservatism wins battles, it loses hearts and minds.

Like I said in one of the main politics threads, they look at the NFL and (even before they consider the whole kneeling controversy) they see an Overton window skewed leftwards by millions and millions of dollars because in their view the players "ought" to earn maybe double minimum wage at most. (I'll grant that the extent of prejudice varies plenty in conservative circles, and as Kadin2048 touched on upthread, this new era has empowered particularly deplorable sort, a small mercy being that this increases the turmoil for them.)

This sort of thing shows up often enough to have a name: The hostile media effect. If you side with Israel, media that aims for neutrality will look pro-Palestinian, and vice-versa. And this isn't just a matter of the media viewer being stubborn -- just try tolerating some both-sides coverage after you swap in "cancer" as the subject (or, I dunno, doing good deeds, except that topic attracts plenty of contrarianism in real life).
posted by InTheYear2017 at 7:18 AM on August 14, 2018 [8 favorites]

Thanks for this, it sums up something I see a lot on left social media.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:48 AM on August 29, 2018

Social media is a bad place to organise. Small differences are amplified where you'd never give a damn at an actual protest, but this is new to no-one here I think.
There is value is sectarianism, because theory affects praxis. There are groups who, yeah we'll organise with, especially for united front type stuff, but it does make a difference if we think it's worth working with existing organisations and non-socialist movements and others think independent movements are a threat to the growth of their party.

It's not wise or worth spending time to denounce them in public, but tactics matter and it's important to not just wave your hand and say "we're all on the same side" if we have very different ways of going about things.

That's my problem with this piece, as I'm not sure it leaves space to say "what X is doing is stupid and self-interested, we need to do this instead". Yeah you should have that discussion in a private caucus or organising meeting, but it's not discussion that can be ignored entirely.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 1:59 AM on August 30, 2018

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