A frequent set of calamities that beset the U.S. Left is the hydra of burnout, turnover, and despair. But the source of these problems is not often properly identified because its truth is existentially daunting. However, if confronted, this source of so much turmoil in the Left could be defeated and lead to our ascendance into power.
Canvassing is exhausting. I recently went canvassing with a comrade who was fairly new to it, especially for a group like DSA. He’s a smart empathetic guy from a union background, so when he said he was fine to go it alone after the first two doors, I smiled and wished him good luck. By the end of the night, he looked exhausted (part of this was coming to canvassing after work; like most of our membership, that’s an unfortunate perpetual limit on his energy and time). He had done well in terms of getting to as many doors as possible, but he seemed a bit disappointed by how many people were willing to talk to him (if I remember correctly, something like 6–10%). The sad reality though is that this is fairly typical, especially in New York City and especially for people new to canvassing. It is the product of an oft-mentioned but rarely confronted phenomenon: alienation.
In less than five months, we will have reached the second year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election as president. His administration has fronted an unprecedented attack on the administrative state, freedom of assembly, immigrants, labor, and many other institutions and people. His election also happens to be the time around which a lion’s share of the Democratic Socialists of America joined the organization, motivated by a bittersweet combination of socialism re-entering the popular discourse and fascists emboldened by the most white supremacist friendly president since Woodrow Wilson. The efforts of the DSA membership have been beyond commendable; while the hashtag Resistance spends its time trying to fight a mostly-phantom Russian menace, DSA has accomplished dozens of campaigns across the country and elected socialists into several state governments. Not bad for an organization that was previously, and somewhat justifiably, dismissed as a Gramsci reading group telling people to vote for awful Democrats.
But this work is difficult, especially in the United States. The answer as to why the U.S. presents such difficulty for the Left is as simple as it depressing — people do not care. Now it is important to be clear what “not caring” means. It is not a lack of opinion: people in the U.S. actually tend to be more opinionated about politics than the rest of the world. It is not even a lack of empathy: as the recent outrage over child separation has shown, when the American people are made aware of a problem, they usually have a visceral emotional reaction to it. But this recent outrage is also indicative of the lack of caring. The actions that resulted and ultimately pressured the administration to sign an executive order (which yes, arguably did little to nothing) were not only carried out by an incredibly small portion of the population, but the same incredibly small portion of the population that has carried out the previous actions. The same people I rallied outside of the Capitol with were in that Mexican restaurant yelling at Kirstjen Nielsen. The American people were disgusted by family separation — but most did not care enough to do anything about it.
Now when I bring this up, whether in regards to voting or protests (for all the headlines about resurgence of protests, the actual numbers are less than impressive) or even volunteering, people push back defensively. After all, we have been taught to consider failure to act to be the product of laziness, so there’s an understandable assumption that I am calling Americans lazy. Of course, having done labor organizing, I am aware that Americans are not lazy even by the strictest definitions. But conversely, I think the influence of overworking or fear of repression is overemphasized as a reason for the lack of caring. Surely if overworking or fear of repression were the determinative factor, we’d see less participation in movement politics in a place like Bangladesh than in the U.S., or even less participation by the most exploited people in the U.S. But of course we see the opposite: rallies in the Global South, in countries with small populations, put our turnout numbers to shame.
So we yet again return to the question: why don’t people care?
The U.S. is ground zero for the increasingly global consumer economy. As much as globalization has brought the world, often by force, into conformity with this economy, the U.S. still stands apart. No one uses credit cards like we do. Most countries still do not do bankruptcy like we do. And no one advertises as much per person than we do.
The effects of this are relatively clear. An economy and media oriented towards capitalist consumption inculcates individualism and focus on commodities rather than relationships. As I point out in my law review article which will soon be out in the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law, & Justice, social media has taken this to the next level with an “aspirational consumerism” that transfixes people on commodities without actual ownership, especially through mediums like Pinterest and Amazon (with 310 million users, there are probably quite a few wishlists out there).
Smart phones and other mobile internet devices make it possible to log into this addiction at any time and in almost any place. An increasing number are online almost constantly. And because of how the internet has been commodified, even if you’re not shopping you are probably being bombarded with advertisements. Even if you have that adblocker on, you are probably unwittingly feeding data to companies that will appear in recommendations from Grubhub to Netflix.
Perhaps even more depressing than this reality is how misconstrued and misunderstood it is. The media (and admittedly, this may be intentional) have framed things like the breaches at Equifax and Facebook as criminal liability (identity theft!), political trickery (Russia!), or privacy concerns (my browser history!), usually ignoring altogether that the “legitimate” purpose of this data is itself quite sinister (oh my!).
Because the media fails at portraying these realities, they are worth illuminating any time they come up. But this is not a post about the insidiousness of modern communicative capitalism — it is about the challenge of organizing people numbed by modern communicative capitalism. Or in less wonky Leftist terms, how do we make people care?
One of the takeaways from the Hillary Clinton campaign should be that “leaning in” (pun very much intended) to this alienation does not work. Understanding our modern economic and social conditions is not clickbait, especially when compared to something like a Make America Great Again hat. Which is not to say that we cannot use this system for our own aims — DSA and the quasi-related magazine Jacobin have both done so very well with sleek branding that makes them far less jarring to the internet user than most drab Leftist propaganda. The popular rose emoji on social media is one example of filling the consumption-oriented means of self-identity with a political one.
I wish I had some secret convenient solution for this problem to give you at this point. Asking exhausted people to commit to more work is possibly an exercise in futility. But I believe the answer lies in one of my thoughts in my last brief post: we need to create the spaces that provide a respite from this digital Kafkaesque consumerism. We need to think about being appealing not just in the abstract but specifically knowing that the alternatives are “Look at Buzzfeed listicles” (this author’s vice) or “Netflix binge” or whatever. Without being trite, we need to be real that our enemy is giving people at least the means to numb themselves — what are we giving them? Sure, most people do not really want to be numb, but I have definitely wished for numbness watching yet another pointless panel or discussion on some obtuse Marxist flim flam.
My previous suggestion was cookouts, but we need not limit ourselves to conventional ideas of fun and recreation. But even more important than any one-off event is the need to consciously adopt, and train others to adopt, a mindfulness about the context that people are giving us their labor and time in. The comrade I mentioned at the beginning could have gone home and played computer games or argued with people on Reddit or any number of numbing activities. Every time someone chooses to do this work instead is a small victory we should celebrate.
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