The Church Left is Proving My Point
by Benjamin Studebaker
A couple days ago, I wrote a piece about the tendency for left wing organizations to behave like church communities rather than strategic political organizations. I told a story about an upcoming election at the East Bay DSA branch in California, criticising one of slates for taking unstrategic positions and using church tactics–shunning, shaming, perhaps expulsion–to target those who publicly do not embrace their platform in every detail. Anxious to prove everything I said correct, this slate and its supporters have immediately begun coming after me in precisely the ways I anticipated. They have begun personally targeting me, attempting to depict me as some kind of heretic or sinner. If I am not a true lefty (a heretic) or if I am someone who sometimes takes wrong positions or says wrong things (a sinner) then I am bad and should be shunned, shamed, and drive out of left-wing discourse. The trouble is, I’m a lone wolf on the internet. I don’t tend to join organizations–my influence, such as it is, has always come from the ability of my writing and arguments to draw attention and support. I don’t rely emotionally or psychologically on the acceptance and approval of a church community which they can turn against me. This limits their leverage over my behavior. Churches can try to shun and shame the people who don’t go to church, but it doesn’t work so well.
They want me to defend myself. But I have no intention of attempting to defend my left-wing credentials. Why should I do that? It has nothing to do with the merits of the argument of the post. These people aim to make the discussion about whether I am a good person. They think if they can show that I’m a bad person, everything I say is automatically also bad. It doesn’t matter if I’m a good person. Look at all their attempts to make the argument about whether I am sufficiently virtuous to be worth listening to:
Maybe I’m too educated:
Maybe I’m soft on ableism:
Maybe I’m a secret centrist:
Maybe I spend too much time thinking about how to design institutions so that they both effectively channel the expertise of specialists and reflect the interests of the people:
Maybe I’m just a bad person:
Even Unity and Power’s candidate for treasurer got in on the action, accusing me of being pro-cop:
I’ve heard that people have called me everything ranging from a “fascist” to a “liberal”. Why do these people care so much about my label and the rest of my political beliefs? Their aim is to show I don’t belong to their denomination. If I don’t belong to the denomination, no one in the church should listen to me.
Think about what most left-wing writers would do in my situation. They’d defend their ideological credentials. Maybe they’d attack the credentials of their opponents. “I’m not the heretic–my opponents are the true heretics!” Maybe they’d write some long emotional piece trying to remind you that they are a person who cares about other people (with the subtle implication that you should care about them).
I could easily write that piece. I can picture it in my mind. It’s a good piece. But it would feed into the church norms. It would make me part of what I’m trying to resist. It would make the discussion about me. It’s not about me, and it’s not about them–it’s about a choice the left is making, day by day, bit by bit.
It is choosing to be irrelevant. It is choosing to become the kind of movement which cannot win power. In making that choice, it makes itself soft on every left-wing issue. It doesn’t matter how much we say we care about the disabled, or the Palestinians, or the workers, or people of color, or whomever it might be. If we aren’t engaged in an effective strategy to pursue the interests of the people we care about, we aren’t helping them. Politics isn’t about whether we are virtuous, it’s about the consequences of our actions for actual people.
Why is the left making this choice? Because there are people in the left who are every bit as adrift as people on the far-right. Many people need communities where they can feel that they are valued and have agency. But capitalism has been stripping these communities away from us. Robert Putman wrote a bit about this in Bowling Alone. Social clubs aren’t valued in the market economy. The time you spend at church or with your bowling team is time you aren’t spending working or improving your ability to be productive going forward. As real wages in rich democracies stagnate or decline, people have to work more to stay afloat, and they have to compete harder for the best jobs, which means they have to spend more of their free time trying to bolster their resumes. They don’t have time to join a bowling team or go to church. This not only denies them spaces where they can feel they are part of something, it denies them spaces to exercise power. If you aren’t on a bowling team, you don’t get to be the captain. You don’t get to be the popular one in your clique and make mean-spirited jokes about that one guy in the group everybody hates. If you don’t go to church, you don’t get to teach Sunday School. You don’t get to gossip about all the sinners in the congregation. You don’t get the psychological benefits of being higher up in a social hierarchy than other people.
Men tend to be the most frustrated, because over the last few decades changing gender norms have stripped them of the absolute power they used to exercise at home in the private sphere. Masculinity is tied up with the exercise of power and authority. Men could stop going to church and they could stop playing for bowling teams, but if they lose their power over women they sometimes start to feel inadequate and powerless.
So we have all these people with no sense of community and nowhere to go where they can feel powerful. How can they replace it? When you’re a kid it’s easy–you play video games. Video games constantly make you feel empowered, and many video games have online communities where you can become a big shot and bully the people who are less good at the game than you are. But as you get older you start to feel like video game communities are organized around something that’s kind of pointless, that doesn’t really matter. What matters? Well, religion would matter, but many young people aren’t religious enough to seriously consider going to a church. So what else can they do? Well, they can join political organizations. It’s no secret that many of the young people who are the most political got started reading about politics online, watching YouTube videos, that sort of thing. The phone and the computer might start out as places to play video games, but before too long they become places to argue about politics. Eventually they stumble on real-life activism. They go to meetings. They like it. It gives them that sense of community and purpose. Most importantly, it gives them the opportunity to build little informal social hierarchies grounded on narrow, obsessive conceptions of what counts as “good” and to brutally enforce these conceptions through endless shunning, shaming, expulsions, and bullying. Perfect. Just like their old gaming communities.
They join these organizations, they say they are all about inclusion and giving everyone a democratic say, but if they were honest with themselves the true purpose is to form cliques and position their cliques at the top of their organizations, where they can have the joy that has been denied to them in the family, in the church, in the bowling alley–the joy of deciding which people deserve to be bullied.
All bullies want is to find organizations where they will be socially rewarded for their bullying. They want to be respected and feared. Small democratically run political organizations are great at giving this to them. They don’t have to beat their spouses, they don’t have to go to church, they don’t even have to make fun of the friend everyone hates–they can use all of us as devices for their self-actualization. Aristotle said that we are “political animals”–that we want the opportunity to rule over one another, over slaves, households, cities. An ineffective political organization is simply a space for marginalized people to get their Aristotelian kicks. When people argue that left wing organizations are about giving marginalized people “agency” even at the cost of effectiveness, this is what they really mean.
When left-wing organizations become spaces for the activists to self-actualize as political animals instead of spaces to get things done, we completely and totally betray the poor, working, and oppressed people we say we’re about helping. They’re not stupid. They can see when we’ve abandoned them. They respond by supporting someone else who actually seems to care, someone who promises not to forget about them:
The organizations that need to win to keep cashing those billionaire checks know how to reach those people. If we forget about them, they won’t let us get away with it.