Can We Continue to Care About Winning?

by Benjamin Studebaker

I want to return to the internecine left debate about borders (originally kicked off by Angela Nagle’s piece) one more time this week to map out a couple para-debates that are occurring in the background of the border debate. You see, we think we are fighting with each other about borders, but we are really having a another fight, and the border issue is just in the foreground.

Behind the border debate, we are very often really talking about whether the left should be focusing more heavily on ideal theory or realist theory. Ideal theory is about final ends, it’s about what we should be trying to do, big picture, and it tends to be interested in moral principles as a result. There are some people right now who want to argue about whether we should be for “open borders” in the abstract sense. These people want to do ideal theory. There are other people who want to argue about what kind of immigration position left-wing parties should be campaigning on in 2020. They are interested in figuring out what concrete actions we should take right now to get immediate political results. This means spending a lot of time thinking about this situation and what will happen in the world if we do various different things. These people want to do realist theory.

Most of us claim to do both ideal and realist theory. But right now, ideal and realist theory are pulling at each other a little bit. Many realists have decided that open borders is a loser position for the left, and so they think talking about open borders–even as part of a self-aware ideal theory debate–is politically damaging. Other people who are not part of the left will see us arguing about open borders and they will think that this is something we want to do, and these realists think the perception that the left is interested in doing open borders is really bad for us politically. They also think that ideal theory debates in general are a waste of time, because they distract us from engaging in the realist debates we need to have to win in 2020 and beyond. Realists are deeply interested in political economy, because they think it’s an important part of the way the world presently works, and some of them don’t think there’s an immediate political economy argument for open borders. Some realists also substantively disagree with open borders even as a theoretical long-range goal, because they are a bit communitarian, nationalist, or otherwise distinctiveness-oriented.

At the same time, many idealists have decided that the realists are triangulating too much with the right (or may even themselves be drifting to the right!) in a bid to win elections. Some idealists don’t believe in elections, and think strategizing for elections is a waste of time. Consequently some of them are a bit idealist and think that the move is to educate people about ideal theory, even when that ideal theory is well out of alignment with the political moment. Other idealists think that our strategy should simply be to campaign on our ideal theory, and that even a little triangulation is unacceptable.

Very often, people in both camps think an argument about ideal theory is an argument about realist strategy, or vice versa. This leads to misunderstandings.

So there are several different disagreements:

  1. Are open borders a good thing in the long-run under some set of conditions, from an ideal theory standpoint?
  2. If they are good, can they be part of a realist strategy for 2020?
  3. If they are good but cannot be part of a realist strategy for 2020, should we still talk about them and if so in what way?
  4. If they are bad or if they cannot be part of a realist strategy for 2020, what should the 2020 strategy be with respect to immigration?

I’ve essentially said that open borders would be good, but only under a quite remote set of conditions that are not very much like contemporary conditions. Because of this they cannot be part of a realist strategy for 2020. I’ve said that in 2020 we ought to be focusing on improving economic conditions for ordinary people so that they find immigration less upsetting, and that somewhere not too far down the line this might make some sort of comprehensive immigration reform possible, one which gives undocumented people some kind of path to citizenship.

The question I haven’t answered is the third question–if we want to one day build a world that is radically different from the kind of world which is in the short to medium term achievable, to what extent do we talk about aspects of our long-range proposals that undermine the immediate steps we need to take to get in position to do the short-term and medium-term things that are necessary to one day get us to conditions under which the long-range proposals are possible?

This question has bothered me a bit. In the last three posts, I have tried three different things:

  1. First, in “Angela Nagle, Hillary Clinton, and the Left’s Border War,” I wrote a largely strategy-oriented piece, focused mainly on 2020 with some political economy and polling data.
  2. Then, in “Why We Have Borders,” I zoomed out a bit and focused more on the medium-term, trying to talk about ideal theory and realist strategy together.
  3. Finally, in “Why I Like Thomas Hobbes and You Should Too,” I wrote a piece which is more purely political theory and engages ideal theory debates about whether states belong to particular peoples or can potentially handle diverse multitudes.

On a purely aesthetic level, I like the Hobbes piece best. But it’s a piece that many people could find upsetting, because when we write about ideal theory the values we espouse, while more reflective of what we believe to be true, are likely to be more out of alignment with the values of ordinary people. The more I talk about ideal theory, the more risk there is that you will all figure out that actually I’m a terrible person who likes Thomas Hobbes and is more than a little statist. So should I write a piece like that? What does it really accomplish? It makes me feel good to be so honest, but what does it do for the left?

Realists have started to think of themselves like politicians, and because realists are thinking like politicians, they are reluctant to do ideal theory with you because they think you’ll find their ideal theory scary or upsetting or heretical and stop reading them or listening to them. Realists want to have influence because realists have decided that they need to have influence to help the left win, and they think it’s really important for us to win. I’m enough of a realist to feel uneasy about writing that Hobbes piece. Why subject myself and my reputation to the political costs of writing a thing like that?

At the same time, idealists have started to think of themselves like theologians, and because idealists are thinking like theologians, they are reluctant to do realist theory because they think electoral politics and especially efforts to capture the Democratic Party involve watering down their conceptions of the good. When they do engage in electoral politics, they do it in a way that isn’t very effective and involves identifying and deplatforming heretics. I wrote “The Left is Not a Church“, so I’m not big on this sort of thing. But, before Bernie Sanders ran for president, there was this time (from around 2010 to sometime in 2015) when I didn’t think our political system had any chance of going anywhere positive anytime soon. I had so much fun writing whatever I wanted on this blog, without worrying so much about what other people thought. Attempting to live in the realm of the forms is fun. Leaving that realm and actually talking to other humans and trying to get them to cooperate with you in projects and organisations? Not fun. Even today, I’m not much of a joiner. I write these things, and sometimes they get shared a lot, but most of the time I’m not willing to be part of groups that don’t do whatever I think they should do. It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to listen to you because you go to Cambridge and you’re very clever, but there’s still a part of me that feels they should. That’s why I love blogging–I can do whatever I want and I don’t have to answer to anyone. So is there a part of me that is tired of writing about electoral politics and wishes I could go back 2014, when my blog had almost no audience and I just had loads of fun taking all sorts of ridiculous positions and pretending to be Plato? You bet.

Plato and Aristotle thought the best thing we could do with our lives was contemplate the good, alone or in real-life conversations with similarly inclined friends. I still spend a lot of my time doing it–when I’m supervising students, when I’m reading, when I’m writing my thesis for the right reasons, and still sometimes on this blog when I just can’t help myself. But in the course of my thinking about the good, I came to this position that it’s important to find a way to give other people the time and resources to think about the good themselves and to make decisions about what to do with their lives that are informed by that thinking and not by the pressing need to earn a living. I decided that exploitation–of workers, but also in personal relationships–was really a bad thing, and we really ought to get rid of it. For a few years I had the convenient excuse that I thought we were so badly screwed by defects in the political system that there was nothing I could do which would meaningfully advance these goal, aside from writing about these goals and hoping people’s views and priorities would change over time, as conditions demonstrated to more and more people just how poorly constructed our system is. Bernie Sanders ruined that for me. He didn’t convince me we definitely could accomplish something politically, but he made me think it might be possible. And once I decided it might be possible, it became important to actually try to help him do that. My main contribution was to write pro-Bernie pieces during his campaign that received more than 800,000 views. I also bought a t-shirt and a mug, giving him more than that $27 average he went on and on about. It wasn’t enough, but it was something. I did my bit.

Image result for bernie sanders

For a while, I think a lot of other people felt the way I felt, and there was this brief surge of left energy for realist theory. Left-wing publications started re-opening long dormant debates featuring writers who died long ago about how to make some kind of progress. But somehow, along the way, a bunch of people stopped believing. There’s a chunk of people that fell back into Obama politics, getting behind Warren and O’Rourke and Harris and those types, returning to the Obama/Clinton emphasis on race, gender, and culture and forgetting what Bernie taught us about the moral importance and electoral power of a universalist politics which puts the material interests and economic rights of ordinary people first. They may not have liked Clinton in 2016, but they still liked Obama, and they’d take another person like him even if that person largely espouses Clinton’s views. There’s another chunk of people who went in the other direction and became immersed in ancient interwar Marxist revolutionary politics. And then there’s the “radical liberals”, the people who became immersed in ancient interwar Marxist revolutionary politics and forgot about class and universalism.

These tendencies in the left are disappointing, and I can feel the pull back to the old position. 2014 Benjamin calls out to me:

We’re screwed. They don’t get it. They’ll never get it. All we can do is look for a comfortable spot in the world to hide in while it burns. Find a good job and somebody to marry and start writing pure theory again. None of these people have ever cared about us, and they’re never going to listen, so why try? Most of them won’t even read the pieces because we’re straight and white and male. The rest will misconstrue what we say anyway. Screw them! Let’s contemplate the forms!

It’s the same voice that asks me why I take on so much teaching, even though it eats a lot of my time and probably won’t help my career at all. What if I actually put myself first for a change?

The problem is when I sit there and think about the good, I have to confront the fact that the world is totally out of alignment with everything I believe in. It aggravates me. No amount of putting myself first makes that aggravation go away. I end up feeling like a traditional Buddhist monk–I have a good theory of how to alleviate my own suffering, but it involves withdrawing from society to such a degree that it feels deeply selfish. When Plato finally escapes from the cave, he can’t stay there. He is driven to go back in and try to get other people out. Even though they’ll hate him for it. Even though they may kill him, like they killed Socrates. When Plato went to Syracuse to tutor the tyrant’s brother, the tyrant enslaved him. When his friends bought his freedom and helped him escape, he went back to tutor the tyrant’s son. He went back. The tyrant’s son eventually imprisoned Plato on the island. He escaped again, but this time he was broken–he wrote the Laws, a depressing dialogue about how nobody can change anything about Greece and there’s no point trying.

I don’t like to remember the Plato that wrote Laws. I like to remember the Plato that went back. That’s what it really means to be like Plato–we have to go back. Into the cave. To Syracuse. We have to keep trying to get this system to do something for folks, because it’s what we have, and because if we can’t find a way to make it work we will fiddle from our fancy perches as it burns.

It’s okay to write something like that Hobbes piece every once in a while. We need to think about what really matters to us now and then. But we can’t become like Constant’s Adolphe, aloof and lost, in private fantasies. And we certainly can’t surround ourselves with other people who want to retreat into leftist theology and build for themselves a monastery full of the like-minded. At some point, we have to stop telling everyone that they must publicly affirm positions on the border and on ICE that will cause us to squander another electoral cycle the way we mostly wasted 2018. It is only morally acceptable to indulge in chasing the forms without limit when that life is available to all. In the meantime, we have a duty to find a way to make some kind of genuine, meaningful, non-virtue signalling contribution to the ongoing active effort to somehow salvage the American political system. Yes, Bernie lost. But we must return to Syracuse.