Definitely one of the strangest things that has happened to me on Twitter in the last year (and keep in mind, I’ve gotten thirsty DMs from alt right guys so it’s a high bar) is getting tagged along Matt Bruenig in tweets about geoengineering.
The story behind it is pretty straightforward: I said that while there are legitimate concerns about geoengineering, fundamentalist opposition to it can be a kind of environmentalist chauvinism. Particularly this was said in the context of Matt Bruenig being berated for taking essentially the opposite stance, that climate change’s inevitability made geoengineering an unavoidable necessity. Anyways, it’s strange because Bruenig and I have more often than not been butting heads in our few interactions, such as on his idea for a US sovereign wealth fund with a dividend to create a (near) universal basic income. But because of the extreme positions on the issue of geoengineering, those who oppose it outright without exception see Bruenig and I as the same side of the coin that they are on the opposite side of.
While I’ve never had the accusation directed at me individually, I’ve often been implicated in criticisms on the Left of “wreckers.” “Wreckers,” a term that somewhat amusingly comes from Stalin, is a derogatory term for those perceived as more focused on “wrecking” Leftist organizing than building Left power. Right out the gate, I want to state something simply and without qualification. I have never met a “wrecker” who was not a literal cop. And while my ten years of experience in socialist organizing does not mean I know everything, one would think that I would have run into one or two if they did exist. I highly doubt that “wreckers” do exist and if they do, they are so rare as to be a relative non-issue for the Left.
So if there are no wreckers, are the people making accusations of people being wreckers totally offbase? Are they simply thin-skinned? Or worse still, are they bigots and class reductionists seeking to bring about some sort of white bro socialism?
The answer to all of these questions is no. Sometimes I wish it were not, given how disagreeable I find many of these people. But even if they diagnose it incorrectly, they are recognizing a serious problem on the Left that implicates the way we organize at the most fundamental level. Unfortunately they don’t recognize the role they are playing in that problem.
There may not be any mythical wreckers, but there are certainly haters, and the hater-ade has been flowing through the Left for quite some time. As stated in an interview of Max Elbaum about the New Left: “The movement was generally afflicted by ultra-left tendencies and a tendency to polarize forces that weren’t, in their view, as revolutionary as them.” “Ultra-left” is a term meaning “the failure or refusal, in the name of abstract ‘left’ principles, to establish and maintain the necessary links with, and involvement in, the mass movement…not finding the next link in the chain and so losing hold of the chain as a whole.” It does not always mean holding more “revolutionary” politics — it can range from saying that the term “health justice” (used by most community groups) is antithetical to the Medicare For All campaign, to refusing to support a socialist candidate running on a Democratic Party ticket.
Because of the confusion “ultra-left” causes, the need to define and then debate the definition of it, I prefer the term “haters.” It really gets to what I believe the heart of the problem is. There is an unfortunate tendency on the Left to believe that hating on something is by itself political. Hating is indeed often the impetus of organizing and political action, but it is not in itself political action. Nor for that matter is it always valid. And most importantly, it does not always require a response let alone an accommodation. Unfortunately hating has a reciprocal relationship on the Left with another kind of conduct that is not-actually political action: “being right.” Those focused on “hating” and those focused on “being right” (let’s call them “know-it-alls”) are, in the most perverse way, made for each other.
A hater and a know-it-all can go back and forth ad infinitum. The hater criticizes something, and the know-it-all just has to make sure the hater knows that they are actually wrong and the know-it-all is “right.” The hater then hates on this response, to which the know-it-all just has to respond by saying that it was right for them to respond. I’m sure anyone reading this with a Facebook account has seen this go down.
To be clear, I don’t think these “haters” or “know-it-alls” represent a majority of the Left. And these aren’t static categories; most “haters” are not haters for life, or haters in all situations, or haters offline, and so on. “Haters” can just as likely be hating on “identity politics” as hating on “class reductionism.” But because the hating and lecturing can be such a singular focus, a vocal minority can quickly poison the discourse and make the majority of people, who just want to make the world a better place, not want to engage in the conversations.
The never-ending back and forth should end. Not because the haters are wreckers; even when they are “wrong,” the haters are usually motivated by noble purposes from making organizations more equitable to preventing a misuse of resources or time. Nor is it the fault of the know-it-alls; sometimes they are indeed “right,” and while being right isn’t everything, we certainly want our organizations to hold the best positions and take the best actions. Rather it is, as Max Elbaum put it, the tendency of this back and forth to create “small sects instead of flexible, mass revolutionary groups.”
That is why I was so fascinated when all of a sudden, despite our many disagreements, I got grouped in with Matt Bruenig when caught up in the back and forth of discourse. And what is deeply troubling to me is how post-2017 the Democratic Socialists of America have become more divided into increasingly small sects. The genius of DSA, and the reason why it quickly blossomed from a small reading group of New Left elders to the 50,000+ organization it is today, is that it has always consciously and expressly been a flexible mass socialist group. Disagreements and divisions are inevitable, and many are beneficial. When they become a problem is when the divisions make disagreement an end to itself, a constant jockeying of position in intra-organizational drama rather than debating what is to be done in actual political action.
The solution to the problem is simple — break the cycle. Before making a criticism, ask yourself what you hope to achieve by making it. Before responding to a criticism, ask yourself if the response will be listened to. Most importantly, adopt the humility to understand what you might dislike or believe is “right” at the time is limited to your individual capacity. Put the “social” back in “socialism” and solicit and listen to those who disagree with you. Who knows — that person you thought was a “wrecker” might have some good ideas, and she might in turn realize that you agree with her on far more than you disagree.