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We Can’t Cancel Ourselves Into a Better World

In his new book, Ben Burgis argues that it’s a mistake for leftists to participate in moralistic “canceling” or retreat into a fringe subculture. We have to create an environment that feels welcoming to millions of people who want to change the world.

(Andrew Merry / Getty Images)

At the end of last month, 450 past Jeopardy! contestants issued an open letter condemning recent winner Kelly Donohue and demanding that both Donohue and the producers of the show apologize for what the letter writers referred to as a “racist dog whistle.” On his fourth appearance on the show, Donahue made a gesture with three fingers to indicate that he’d won three times. The previous two times, he’d made the one- and two-fingered equivalent without stirring up any controversy. But in this case, the former contestants thought what he was doing resembled a gesture sometimes made by white supremacists (and far more often made by ordinary people unaware of any such association — resulting in the kind of confusion approaching absurdity that those white supremacists were probably aiming for).

It was a striking example of a phenomenon sometimes called “cancel culture” (or, before that, “callout culture”). The term itself has become mired in endless debates about what it means to be “canceled,” whether anyone is “really” canceled, and so on. The culture war cycle often features reactionaries stretching the concept of “canceling” to incorporate a variety of unrelated cultural grievances — see, for example, Mr. Potato Head — and progressives insisting that “there’s no such thing as cancel culture.”

But the underlying phenomenon is real. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the toxic cocktail of neoliberal social atomization, for-profit social media platforms that incentivize our worst impulses, and a sense of powerlessness that can be temporarily sated through online pile-ons and attempts to get people fired or de-platformed for doing or saying bad things has produced a culture of mutual surveillance and hair-trigger denunciation that infects the entire political spectrum.

It’s not hard to find examples of right-wingers piling onto a random Starbucks barista and trying to get her fired for saying “f— Trump” or centrists engaging in online mass-denunciations of Berniecrats based on dubious accusations of racism or sexism. But as a leftist, I’m particularly concerned with the way these trends play out on the Left. When leftists are reluctant to give each other the benefit of the doubt and quick to turn on each other, that undermines our ability to pursue a collective project to change the world for the better.

When I see conservatives and centrists engaged in hair-trigger denunciation and efforts at personal destruction, they usually seem to be directing that fire at people to their left. But even if the Right was mirroring what I see on the Left, it wouldn’t bother me. I don’t mind if the Right eats itself. I want the Right to eat itself. I don’t want the Left to eat itself, because I want us to win.

If we’re going to get everyone health care and end police violence at home and imperialist wars abroad and expand democracy into the workplace, we need to learn to appeal to the broadest possible subset of the population. Far too many people whose material interests align with our program will find the face the Left often presents to the world deeply unappealing.

The Case of Barbara Ehrenreich

In a world where hundreds of normie Jeopardy! contestants are ready to sign onto a slightly surreal denunciation of someone like Kelly Donahue at a moment’s notice, it’s not surprising that similar things happen in the smaller and often more insular world of the socialist left. The experience of the left-wing YouTuber Natalie Wynn (ContraPoints) is one notorious example. A somewhat less well-remembered example I discuss in my new book has to do with socialist writer Barbara Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich has been part of the socialist movement, the women’s movement, and the peace movement since the Vietnam era. She was a leader of the New American Movement (NAM), a group of left-wing intellectuals that later merged with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) to become Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Ehrenreich served for a long time as an honorary co-chair of the DSA. She’s written a steady stream of books and essays for the last fifty years, often dealing with economic inequality, gender inequality, and America’s brutal domination of the Global South.

Fast forward to 2019. In a tweet about popular Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo, Ehrenreich mused out loud about what it might say that Kondo was this popular with American audiences despite the fact that she didn’t speak English. Previous generations of mainstream television viewers wouldn’t have been willing to read subtitles in exchange for that kind of content, and Ehrenreich tweeted that this was a sign that “America is in decline as a superpower.”

It always feels strange to spell out in detail what you take to be the point of someone else’s throwaway tweet, but here goes: While America remains the world’s dominant power, recent geopolitical shifts have complicated and somewhat undermined that dominance. This change has made itself felt in the cultural sphere, where we can see indications of the declining imperial arrogance of citizens of the United States. Americans once took it for granted that everyone in the world — certainly anyone with a claim on their attention — would learn their primary language, but those expectations have begun to shift. Isn’t that interesting?

I suppose someone hearing Ehrenreich’s name for the first time when the ensuing Twitter pile-on was in progress might be forgiven for thinking the point of her tweet was flag-waving “everyone should learn English” xenophobia, but anyone with any previous familiarity with the woman or her decades of writing and activism should know better. She’s spent decades as a critic of American Empire. Why on earth would she suddenly now think its decline was an unwelcome development?

 

As I watched hundreds of random Twitter users yelling at her, I kept thinking about something that happened when I was a teenager. A couple who were friends with my parents had four dogs. Our family had two.

One weekend the couple went out of town and left their dogs at our house. Ours met theirs, butts were sniffed, and the six of them did what any sufficiently large number of dogs will do: they formed a pack and romped around the house looking for things to bark at. When the pack found one of our cats, all six dogs — including the two who saw that cat every day without incident — started barking incessantly.

In this case, the group mind stupidity is even more unforgivable, since presumably the first dogs to start barking at Ehrenreich were the ones who followed her on Twitter. Anyone in that category would know that she’d been an anti-imperialist activist since Richard Nixon’s presidency. Even so, the appearance on their timelines of a tweet that could be read differently if you forgot who tweeted it was enough to set them off. That set others off, and by the time the whole thing was written up in outlets like USA Today, journalists who may or may not have even googled Ehrenreich’s name at some point before penning their write-ups were casually referring to it as a “racist tweet.”

The Pathologies of Powerlessness

What happened to Ehrenreich was simply a left-wing manifestation of ugly trends seeping in from the larger culture. But I also worry that the Left is too eager to embrace a punitive and moralistic mindset because of what I call “the pathologies of powerlessness” in the book.

The labor movement has been in decline for decades. Politicians Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK spent most of their careers extremely marginalized. In terms of horizons more radical than the election platforms of Sanders and Corbyn, the collapse of deeply flawed and authoritarian experiments in creating noncapitalist economies in countries like the Soviet Union led to a global consensus that, in the immortal words of the hideous Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative” to the way the world is presently organized.

The political atmosphere has started to change so quickly that it’s hard to remember just how bad things were just a few years ago. As a leftist in the age of TINA (There Is No Alternative), either you rooted for corporate centrists like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, you sat on the political sidelines rereading the Collected Works of Marx and Engels, or you convinced yourself that the most small-scale forms of local activism would someday, somehow amount to something.

In effect, anyone with a worldview to the left of liberalism was faced with a choice between just becoming a liberal or growing to see politics as a kind of moral performance. If you’d read your Chomsky and you paid attention to the news and you knew that both of the Democratic presidents in your lifetime had signed trade deals that undercut the bargaining power of once-mighty industrial unions and had bombed a whole lot of civilians in third-world countries, you might end up doing things like voting for third-party candidates who the majority of Americans had literally never heard of in order to vent your displeasure. And why not? It helped preserve your sense of being part of some kind of opposition to all the infuriating things you read about in the newspaper, and it’s not like there were enough people like you out there to tip the election to the Republicans in any case.

Under those circumstances, it’s understandable that many radicals devoted much of their time to left-wing factionalist fights — often ones waged over fairly minor disagreements. If you can’t change the big world outside the windows of the university lecture hall where your fifty-member socialist organization holds its meetings, you can at least have the satisfaction of taking over the organization and bending it to your will.

The real world, for example, is full of landlords and business owners who won’t do basic things to come into compliance with the decades-old Americans with Disabilities Act, because no one with the energy and the financial resources to do so has made a plausible threat to sue them yet. Changing that reality is immensely difficult. But it’s easy enough to get a Democratic Socialists of America convention to enforce rules as extreme as prohibiting clapping during debate in the name of accommodating the disabled — something that resulted in a notorious montage of clips circulated two years ago by the far-right propagandist Tucker Carlson.

Similarly, the world is full of bosses and other authority figures who abuse their positions of power. Changing that reality is immensely difficult. That can make it all too tempting to leap to judgment when similar accusations are made in an arena where you’re in a position to enforce “consequences.” Hence, when extremely vague accusations of sexual impropriety were made against congressional candidate Alex Morse, far too many leftists and progressives were prepared to abandon him without waiting for any sort of investigation. By the time his name was cleared, quite a bit of damage had already been done.

The effect of the behavior captured by Tucker’s clips — cherry-picked and wielded in bad faith by a man who clearly doesn’t have our best interests at heart, but still real — was to make socialists look like strange scolds all too ready to excoriate each other for daring to clap instead of waggling their fingers or for using “gendered language” like “hey guys.” The effect of abandoning a candidate on the basis of unproven accusations is to make left-wing primary challengers extremely easy to neutralize. All of this is troubling enough on its own.

But what often makes left moralism even more disturbing is that, to activists and commentators in the grip of this way of doing things — what the late Marxist cultural critic Mark Fisher called “the Vampire Castle” — these obvious strategic objections sometimes don’t even seem to enter the picture. The Vampire Castle, Fisher says, “doesn’t know how to make converts. But that, after all, isn’t the point.”

What is the point? It seems to me that far too many of my friends and comrades on the Left have bad habits left over from the TINA era. Instead of seeing radical politics as a concrete project to bring about progress in the material world, they often think of it as a noble but hopeless symbolic stand against the many injustices surrounding them. This helps to explain the strange excesses of performative radicalism we often find on the online left. Taking extreme positions that alienate most people outside of our political bubble often feel like a way of taking an even clearer and sharper stand against those injustices.

One problem with reducing left politics to moral symbolism is that if the point of your politics is to perform your inner commitments rather than to mobilize the broadest possible coalition to bring about your political goals, it’s easy to end up acting like the guardian of an exclusive leftist clubhouse instead of eagerly welcoming every possible convert. Last year, when the comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan endorsed Bernie Sanders, even some Sanders supporters objected to Bernie embracing the endorsement.

The issue in this case concerned objectionable comments that Rogan had made about trans MMA fighter Fallon Fox. But as the late Michael Brooks and I pointed out in the Jacobin article we cowrote at the time, Rogan’s endorsement of Bernie (and Bernie’s embrace of that endorsement) served the cause of trans rights. As Jamie Gardner and Maddy Grace Webbon wrote during the campaign, Bernie Sanders was by far the most pro-trans candidate in the race, and the support of one of the most popular podcasters on the planet made it somewhat more likely that he would become president and implement his platform — which included implementing a Medicare for All program that would fund gender transition surgery.

Treating this goal as less important than symbolically rebuking a comedian with a somewhat confused combination of good and bad political instincts would have been deeply misguided. Even the goal of countering reactionary attitudes like transphobia would be far better served by making welcoming gestures towards Rogan and his legion of fans, while continuing to push them in a better direction on these issues, than by denouncing Rogan and telling him that Sanders didn’t want his support.

As I once heard the socialist scholar Adolph Reed say on the Michael Brooks Show, all of this is far “too Protestant” an approach to politics. A focus on morally evaluating individuals — as Reed put it, on whether any given individual is “going to Heaven” or “going to Hell” — gets in the way of collective action to bring about a better future.

Going Forward

Actually doing something about these trends within the larger culture would require that the Left take power so we can do things like end at-will employment and nationalize Twitter. If I’m right to suggest that the impact of those trends on the Left makes it harder for us to do that, the whole thing starts to look like a Catch-22. We can’t win over a majority and take power because we’re undermining ourselves because of factors that we can only do anything about once we win a majority and take power.

But there are some reasons to be at least cautiously optimistic about whether the situation isn’t as hopeless as all that. To begin with, as I’ve argued above, the reason the Left can be so cancel-y isn’t just that we live in an increasingly cancel-y world. Another part of the problem is that a moralistic focus on “taking a stand” can be a symptom of powerlessness. To the extent that we’ve just picked up bad habits during our long exile from real politics, a collective course correction should be possible.

Secondly, “cancel culture” is hardly the only counter-solidaristic force that originates outside of the Left but impacts it (along with the rest of the political spectrum). Think about racism and sexism and homophobia and other such prejudices. All of these are large enough problems with American society as a whole that it would be foolish to expect that the Left be completely immune to them — that, for example, no left-wing man will ever express attitudes that are tinged with sexism. But we also don’t throw up our hands and say that there’s no point trying to discourage these attitudes in our ranks. Even in the 1930s and ’40s, when the United States was a far more blatantly racist country than it is now, you couldn’t walk into a Communist Party USA meeting and use racial slurs.

Right now, far too many leftists dismiss critiques of punitive, moralistic behavior by leftists by mocking those critiques as calls for politeness and bourgeois respectability, or by insisting that what happens online doesn’t matter very much — even though a massive chunk of the political interaction, political education, and even political organizing that happens in America in 2021 has an online component. And even though, as some of the examples discussed above unfortunately demonstrate, these problems also exist offline.

A persistent criticism of the title of my book has been that it doesn’t matter whether people “cancel comedians” while unwinding on Twitter if they also involve themselves in real world organizing. As the meme says, “Why not both?” And anyway, why should we waste our time complaining about toxicity within the Left “while the world burns”?

The problem is that, even if you spend ten hours a week with the Labor Organizing Working Group of your DSA chapter, every half hour you spend spewing bile at “the problematic” online undermines the good work you did in the ten hours by making the Left look like overgrown hall monitors to the rest of the world. That’s a real problem.

Conversely, helping to show people who we want to win over that they don’t have to like the Vampire Castle to join us has real value. The kind of left that Michael Brooks advocated, a left that’s learned to be “ruthless to systems” but “kind to people,” is going to be far more appealing to potential converts than one that looks like hundreds of people leaping to denounce Natalie Wynn or Barbara Ehrenreich over the worst possible interpretation of stray tweets.

How can we go about trying to collectively establish more thoughtful, more comradely, and more human norms of interaction among people working together to change the world — and apply them even when we’re politically interacting with each other in online spaces that are practically designed to encourage atomized individuals to turn on each other at the slightest provocation? These are difficult questions without easy answers. But we can’t afford to dismiss the problem as unimportant and refuse to even try to collectively do better. We have a world to win.