On the State of the Left in 2022

by Benjamin Studebaker

This past weekend, I did a couple panels for the Platypus Society at the University of Chicago and Northwestern. These included two prepared ten-minute talks. The talks focus on the relationship between Marxism and liberalism, and on the degree to which the Millennial Left is and was Marxist. The scripts for those two talks are below. If you watched the panels live (or on YouTube), I did ad-lib a bit in places. This is not a transcript.

The First Talk

Prompt: What is liberalism? Why is liberalism in crisis today and how long has liberalism been in crisis? Why did Marx both take up and critique liberalism? What can we learn from that today? What is the relationship of Marxism to liberalism?

I like to say that liberalism makes three core claims.

The first is the priority liberalism gives to the individual. For liberals, the individual is the primary unit of society. All social structures must be justified to the individual, and they can only be good or desirable insofar as they contribute to individual well-being. Individuals are autonomous, they have agency, and individuals are responsible for the things they do. Individuals who deny their agency or responsibility are acting inauthentically and have morally failed in some way.

The second is an affinity for markets. Liberals tend to think markets make better decisions than bureaucracies, patronage networks, and families. They like markets because markets make productive decisions by aggregating individual decisions. Prices go up and down because individuals choose to buy or not to buy various products, and individuals make those choices autonomously, based on what they value. Liberals are uncomfortable with appeals to God, the common good, the good of the state, or the good of the family. It is hard to prove that these concepts and institutions benefit individuals. Liberals suspect that elites use these terms to bully people and excuse unjust coercion. To varying degrees, they often suggest that God, the good, the state, and/or the family are oppressive.

The third is an emphasis on pluralism, on accepting people with diverse values. Lots of individuals value different things, and since these different values all come from different individuals with different desires and perspectives, liberals consider all of these desires and perspectives legitimate. As long as it emanates from the individual, bottom-up, they think it’s okay.

The thing is, liberalism doesn’t like it when individuals have values that invoke a top-down worldview. If you derive your values from abstract ideas like God, the good, the state, the class system, and the family, you aren’t starting with the individual. You have external sources of value, above yourself, that you answer to. Liberals think that this makes you dangerous. You won’t like it when markets make decisions that conflict with your external source of value. You might feel that other people should answer to the same source of value as you do, and therefore you might get frustrated with pluralism, too.

Unfortunately for liberals, it’s not possible to make all decisions through the market and through the individual. This was very obvious to Max Weber, who explicitly argued that the liberal freedom to autonomously choose values for oneself depends on the existence of the state. Without a state, non-liberals will be able to destroy liberalism. Non-liberals are willing to use coercion to impose their top-down value systems on unwilling individuals. A liberal state protects liberalism from other value systems. To do this, the state not only needs an army, it also needs a system of education. The state has to inculcate liberal values in young people so that when those young people participate in government, they will use state power responsibly, to defend liberalism. Otherwise, Weber argues that politically immature citizens will commandeer the state and turn it to illiberal ends.

This means liberalism requires a state that strategically violates the liberal commitment to pluralism. The liberal commitment to individual freedom is expressed in part through the liberal commitment to markets, so the liberal state will strategically violate its commitment to pluralism to defend the market, too. When the liberal state is secure, it makes an effort to show that it is committed to pluralism. In the 90s, liberals like John Rawls went to great pains to argue that liberalism could include “reasonable people” who believe in God, the good, the state, and the family. But when the liberal state feels that liberalism is in danger, it tightens things up.

Because the liberal state is committed to pluralism, it erodes the legitimacy of the liberal state when it is seen to violate pluralism. It must therefore find ways to violate pluralism without being seen to violate it. It does this by inducing private civil society organizations to censor citizens on its behalf. During the Red Scare, being a Marxist in public wouldn’t get you arrested, but it would make it very hard for you to get a job, especially in institutions where you might have political or cultural influence.

This swinging between affirming and violating pluralism is a crisis that has been with liberalism from the beginning. It comes and goes in seasons. After the global economic crisis of 2008, we began sliding into a liberal winter. Liberalism got defensive, and it’s been trying to diminish the space for non-liberal discussions, especially online. It doesn’t do this through state censorship, but by using social pressure and the threat of job loss to intimidate people.

The liberal’s favorite way to violate pluralism is to accuse people who challenge individualism and the market of opposing pluralism. They love Karl Popper, and they love to use his paradox of tolerance to excuse their attacks on pluralism. They deny the possibility of non-liberal pluralism. So, if you don’t agree with them about individualism and markets, you must be a fascist or a neo-reactionary or some other such thing. And it’s always okay to bash the fash, right?

Now, where do Marxists fit into this? Marx’s theory of history suggests that capitalism is a necessary stage of development. During the capitalist stage, markets spread throughout society, breaking down top-down structures from the feudal era. They break down the church, they break down traditional understandings of the good, they break down traditional types of states, and they break down traditional families. By corroding these structures and making them less effective, capitalism creates an institutional vacuum, which can then be filled by socialism.

Liberalism is necessary to get out of the old society, but it cannot be the end goal. Marx objects to the traditional form of society in large part because traditional societies involve the exploitation of slaves and serfs. Marx wants to free these traditional workers from these forms of domination. Liberalism ends slavery and serfdom, but the market still allows workers to be exploited. They need to work to survive. The fact that they need jobs forces them to agree to work for less than they otherwise would. The worker may not be the slave or serf of any particular person, but the worker depends on the labor market for survival. The market itself is their master.

Now, if you blame the market for the fact that you’re working for less than you really feel your time is worth, you’re blaming an abstract structure for a decision you made. For liberals, this means you’re behaving inauthentically. You’re denying your agency and your responsibility for the choices you’ve made. If you argue that exploitation is bad, you’re making the market answer to your understanding of the good. That involves submitting to an external value system, another illicit move. If you point out that the cost-of-living crisis is making it hard for people to have families, you’re valuing the family—a nebulous abstraction—over a market system based on individual values. If you point out that many individuals value the family, or the good, or think it’s important to take structural incentives seriously, you’re pressing up against the contradiction at the heart of liberalism.

Liberals can’t win this argument straight-up, so they respond by accusing you of opposing pluralism and being some kind of totalitarian tankie fascist. To avoid being thrown in that basket of deplorables, Marxists respond by allying themselves with anarchists and progressive liberals.

This is a poisoned chalice. Anarchists are opposed to anything top-down, and that means they tend to affirm individualism. While they will happily oppose bosses, they like co-ops. Cooperative businesses still compete with each other in a market system, and they still have to control their costs to stay in business. This means they still have to exploit their members. They induce their workers to become their own bosses and each other’s bosses. Co-ops are independent contractors plus peer pressure.

Progressive liberals are liberals. These Elizabeth Warren-types aren’t actually interested in going beyond the market. They want to protect the market by making strategic concessions to workers. Workers who ally with them end up getting pushed around. They are told that they must vote for liberals to have any chance of getting any further concessions. If they don’t comply, the progressive liberals try to frighten them, telling them that right-wing parties will take past concessions away. To make matters worse, the progressive liberals take cultural stances that many workers find alienating. Marxists who refuse to embrace progressive cultural positions are accused of rejecting pluralism. Marxists who comply are cut off from the bulk of the working class.

Of course, if Marxists try to dialogue with social conservatives, who place emphasis on top-down abstractions, they are immediately accused of being totalitarian tankie fascists. Once Marxists are in that basket of deplorables, they can be socially ostracized at negligible political cost.

The liberal state puts Marxists in a tough position. They can accept being demonized as totalitarians, or they can ally with soft left factions that aren’t really interested in moving beyond the market. To escape this dilemma, Marxists need to advance a thoroughgoingly Marxist, non-liberal form of pluralism. It may be possible to do this through small-r republicanism. I think there’s some potential in Bruno Leipold’s Citizen Marx thesis. But I’m probably coming up on the ten-minute mark, so I’ll have to leave it there.

The Second Talk

Prompt: Was the Millennial Left Marxist? What was not Marxist about it? What is the relevance of Marxism today? Why is it necessary to recover or return to Marxism and what would it mean to go beyond it? What is the point of leadership by Marxist intellectuals? Is that necessary? 

In the United States, the Millennial Left was built around Bernie Sanders’ presidential runs and a variety of spin-off organizations. The Sanders campaign was attractive to some Marxists because in the beginning, it emphasized universal working-class economic issues. It was all about healthcare, education, and infrastructure. In those early days, Sanders made an effort to be diplomatic about culture war issues. Both progressive liberals and social conservatives use these issues to divide people up, and Sanders was often able to say that out loud. Regardless of whether Sanders himself was a Marxist, it was possible to see the 2016 Sanders campaign as a positive development for Marxism. It created a lot of energy in working people. It was not unreasonable to think that there was potential here. Many Marxists were surprised to see Sanders perform so competitively, and it was possible that more surprises lay ahead.

Of course, the Clinton campaign accused Sanders’ supporters of being “Bernie Bros”. The goal was to frame Sanders as vaguely sexist or a racist, and to use that to chip away at his progressive support in the primaries. Sanders lost in 2016, and many in his inner circle believed that this was the reason he failed to break through.

To win over progressive liberals in Democratic primaries, the Millennial Left gradually incorporated more polarizing cultural positions. Anarchists and libertarian socialists took larger roles in campaigns and organizations. Some Marxists held out hope that Sanders could use progressive positions to win the primary and pivot back toward economic issues. But between 2016 and 2020, the Millennial Left increasingly became associated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad”. The squad became associated with efforts to abolish the police and open the borders to immigrants. Liberal media outlets worked tirelessly to associate Sanders and the Millennial Left with the squad. Initially, the Sanders campaign was happy to be associated with the squad, thinking that they would help in the primaries.

But the squad was never very interested in Sanders’ economic program. Ocasio-Cortez made appearances with Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris before finally endorsing Sanders. She described Medicare-For-All as a negotiating tactic to secure a public option, forcing Sanders to publicly distance himself from her. After Joe Rogan endorsed Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez began publicly declining to attend Sanders’ events.

Many anarchists and libertarian socialists supported Warren, considered supporting Warren, or refused to criticize Warren throughout the campaign. Many of these people backed Sanders in 2016, but were drawn to Warren by her policy whitepapers and her willingness to pretend to be interested in reparations for slavery. Some of these people meant well, but didn’t understand the value of bringing the working class together. Some of them were careerists, hoping to establish bona fides in the Millennial Left and then use their credibility with the left to get jobs in establishment organizations. Some of them were progressive liberals who preferred Sanders to Clinton in 2016 but were pleased to have the opportunity to vote for Warren in 2020. I could name names, but I won’t.

During the 2020 campaign, I was co-hosting a podcast called What’s Left. When I was on that show, its purpose was to steer the Millennial Left in a Marxist direction, to steer the Sanders campaign in a Marxist direction, and to help Sanders win the primary. The project was unsuccessful on all three counts. The Millennial Left became increasingly hostile to Marxism. The Sanders campaign relied on the labor power of the Millennial Left, and as the Millennial Left moved to the right, it followed them. Ultimately, this destroyed the mass appeal of the campaign and doomed it to failure.

When I say that the Millennial Left moved to the right, I’m saying that it moved toward liberalism. As I said in my talk yesterday, for liberals the individual is the primary unit of society. It is the unhypothetical first principle of everything. It is the liberal equivalent to Plato’s Form of the Good. For liberals, abstract conceptions like class, the state, and god are fictions. They might be useful fictions, but if you take them seriously, you are reifying them. Only the individual is real.

This leads to a liberal tendency to moralize. If individual moral agents are the only social unit that we can be sure really exists, then everything bad that happens comes down to individuals making immoral choices. The individual is responsible for climate change and racism and sexism. Individual vices like corruption and greed cause economic problems. Capitalism and democracy aren’t real, neoliberalism isn’t real, and all explanations that make reference to these things are reifying fake stuff.

The remnants of the Millennial Left are obsessed with moralizing. They are also obsessed with creating friend/enemy distinctions. Anyone who disagrees with it is a fascist or a white supremacist or a misogynist or what have you. These people can be thrown in Hillary Clinton’s infamous basket of deplorables. Engaging with these people is appeasement. We are meant to triumph over them by abolishing the Senate and the Electoral College, packing the Supreme Court, fighting voter suppression, and so on.

When people don’t agree with the Millennial Left, they are morally wrong for failing to agree, and since they are bad people, it is okay to treat them as enemies. This is, of course, deeply right-wing thinking. It sounds much more like Carl Schmitt than Karl Marx.

If you don’t agree, you cannot be part of the Millennial Left. As far as they’re concerned, you must be on the right.

So now, you have to choose.

You can go along with this, and stick with the Millennial Left. But this is like hanging around to sniff a rotting corpse. You can poke it with a stick, but it’s not going to move.

You can become right-wing because the Millennial Left says that’s what you have to do. If Marxists ally with social conservatives, the Millennial Left will help the liberal establishment police Marxism out of the discourse in the name of bashing the fash. But the religious right has money, and many Marxist intellectuals need money.

But I think the Millennial Left is moribund. Why allow it to dictate what Marxists do? If you don’t need to take money from the progressive liberals or the social conservatives, why play either game? Fighting the culture war diminishes class consciousness, regardless of which direction we fight it from. If we make alliances with culture warriors, they put their culture war ahead of the economic interests of working people every time.

Yes, the culture war gets people to buy books and subscribe on Patreon. If you participate in it, they might let you write for The Atlantic. What does helping the working class do for you? It just gets you accused of being a fascist.

This is the problem with the Marxist intellectual. Most Marxist intellectuals are professionals, not aristocrats. They work for universities. They work in the media. They work for activist organizations. They need money. So, they make cultural content, telling themselves they’ll use the money to help workers later. But the culture war keeps the working class divided and ensures that day never comes.

So, do we just get rid of Marxist intellectuals? Unfortunately, if there are no Marxist intellectuals, anarchists, libertarian socialists, progressive liberals, and religious conservatives will direct worker resentment to useless and futile ends.

Workers have so much of their time and energy taken from them every day. The Democrats’ human infrastructure bill calls for huge amounts of money to be poured into childcare. Workers don’t have time to care for their own children anymore, much less read the news, much less become Marxist, much less found authentic working class Marxist organizations. The American working class is the American subaltern.

You know what’s missing? Friedrich Engels. We need Marxists who are so loaded that they don’t need to participate in the market. They are the only people free to create a form of left-wing politics that does not depend on the culture war. But can such people be found? Do any of you have an enormous pile of money? Do any of you know anybody with an enormous pile of money? Even at beautiful posh universities like Cambridge, Chicago, and Northwestern, these people are hard to find. And most of them don’t want to fund Marxism, they want to protect their wealth or go to space.

Somehow, the money must be found. If it’s not, here’s what will happen. The culture war will continue to get more absurd and more detached from the needs of real people. Liberal academics hoping to make a name for themselves in the academy will invent increasingly inaccessible terms. Most people won’t be able to keep up, and more and more Americans will disengage from the political process. To gin up interest, the Democrats will constantly try to persuade us that the Republicans are Nazis, and the Republicans will constantly try to persuade us that the Democrats are Stalinists. But people will grow tired of that, after a while. They’ll abandon the political. They’ll join fandoms and churches, or they’ll buy crypto and try to join the billionaires in space.

Can you blame people? If you’re a good Marxist, you can’t.