I like Seth Ackerman and his work, but this is a particularly, and peculiarly, poor effort. I’ll expand on this, but I think essentially everything it argues can be rejected with a simple point: it is not required for political actors to be perfectly righteous in their beliefs or associations for them to contribute to righteous political action, and it is profoundly perverse for Marxists to argue so, given the history of American communism and the ways in which it has been oppressed.
Frase quotes “libertarian-ish” blogger Will Wilkinson making a point similar to his own — that “it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false.” But the only named person to whom Wilkinson attributes that fallacy is … Sean Wilentz.
At this point, I’m not convinced there actually are any left-wing apologists for rampant NSA spying.
I would counsel not just Ackerman but anyone who wants to write about politics to stop arguing that an argument need not be rebutted because that argument isn’t held by anyone. For one thing, because bad arguments need to be rebutted regardless if they are believed by one person or by one million. And Wilenz argument was a horrific, massively dishonest piece of propaganda that should be rebutted regardless of how many fellow-travelers he has. For another: I just find this a flatly inaccurate representation of the current state of the American left-of-center. Is Ackerman unaware of the Josh Marshalls of the world, with their straightforwardly partisan embrace of state overreach when committed by Democrats? Certainly other people at TNR believe what Wilenz believes, and presumably many in his audience do as well. It’s odd that a writer at Jacobin would dismiss an argument as obscure when that argument appears at a magazine with a far larger readership than Jacobin.
Is it simply that Democrats like Josh Marshall and the TNR crew aren’t really on the left? Then I assure you: there are plenty of soi-disant radicals who are following the invisible line of conspiracy from Snowden to the Koch brothers and using that as an excuse to agitate against Snowden, even to wish for his capture. I argue with them all the time. Many of them are a particular flavor of post-activist, people who I knew from the antiwar days who allowed themselves to become enchanted by Obama ’08, grew disgruntled by Real World Obama, but ascribe his failures to the recalcitrance of congressional Republicans. Many are the conspiratorial flavor of leftist who think that there is a money trail that leads directly from Freedom Works to the pockets of literally every person with whom they disagree. They might be a narrow slice, you might argue that they are irrelevant, but they do exist. The fact that certain arguments may not enter your orbit does not mean that those arguments don’t exist or don’t deserve rebuttal.
And Ackerman’s piece badly needs an injection of the anti-statist history of the radical American left-wing. So much of this debate is actually about culture, rather than actual politics. It’s easy for Ackerman or others to attack Glenn Greenwald or Edward Snowden for appearing to flirt with the Rand Pauls of the world. But the anti-statist rhetoric that is the actual target of both Ackerman’s essay, and the wedge through which Wilenz would like to reject all whisleblowers, has a long, proud lineage on the radical left. Would Ackerman lump the Black Panther party in with the Rand Pauls of the world? Malcolm X? Eugene Debs? Each of these expressed anti-statist rhetoric so intense that it would make Rand Paul blush. That Ackerman indicts resistance and fear towards the state by associating it with Ron Paul merely speaks to the cultural and social milieu in which his argument is heard.
It’s like I said before: I’m left-wing like Fred Hampton, not left-wing like Mayor Daley. I’m with the people who get hit with nightsticks, not people who do the hitting. Resistance to government violence is not some contradiction with left-wing practice. It is left-wing practice. The day-to-day interactions the poor have with the state are dominated by fear, threat, and actual violence. That’s reality. A movement that prides itself for speaking for the dispossessed can’t run the risk of romanticizing the state that might help them, as it is precisely that same state that enforces the condition of their immiseration. Left-wing struggle, rightly theorized, is the struggle against illegitimate power by oppressed peoples. The evolution of that power is an increasing inseparability between the corporate and the governmental. The state and corporations are not in conflict with each other, but are instead in a deep and loving symbiosis. This is why the dissolution of the state, as a fundamentally illegitimate and repressive structure, should be a goal of the left-wing, even as we acknowledge it will take a thousand years.
This is frustrating:
Hence Greenwald’s tirade against the Latin American left’s “crazed enthusiasm for worn-out, socialist/collectivist policies” and his opposition to “unmanageably endless hordes” of immigrants who “ pour over the border in numbers far too large to assimilate.”
The link, if you care to follow it, is to a 9-year old piece which Greenwald has explicitly expressed regret over. Greenwald himself now lives in a South American country, which has a left-wing government, with a native of that country as his husband. Ackerman’s failure to locate those quotes in context might not qualify as active dishonesty, but it’s a hell of a sin of omission.
The nut of all this is here.
Henry Farrell rendered just the right verdict on the Wilentz thesis in the Crooked Timber piece that inspired Frase’s original sally:
If imaginary-Edward-Snowden were running for the Senate, and I was thinking about whether to vote for him, I’d find his views on welfare very, very relevant. Since actual-Edward-Snowden is running from the government for leaking security information … not so much.
Snowden is not running for Senate. But he is an object of adulation from the progressive left — for good reasons, mostly — despite his association with a noxious ideology inclined to comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted.
This is a very weird passage: Ackerman identifies the most important argument from Farrell’s piece, praises it… and then ignores its message completely. The entire point is that because he isn’t running for office, his association with a noxious ideology is entirely irrelevant. That’s exactly what Farrell is arguing. Who cares what Edward Snowden’s thoughts on domestic policy are, given that he has no ability to influence that policy in any meaningful way? I don’t understand why it should be hard to say “I agree with Glenn Greenwald on the topics he focuses on almost to the exclusion of all others, but not on everything.” That is and has been my position for as long as I’ve been reading him, and I find that a natural stance in a rhetorical environment in which we will always substantially disagree with most people on at least some points. And this is where I think this debate is of existential importance to the American left: because the politics of conspiratorial association are an enormous threat to all left-wing practice.
Jacobin, after all, is a Marxist magazine, or a magazine which publishes a lot of Marxists, anyway. What killed American communism? It wasn’t merely the efforts of an American state that sought to crush communism and utilized its enormous capacity for violence and espionage to do so. It was also because American communism ate itself from the inside. The state’s efforts to delegitimize and undermine the efforts of communist and socialist organizations from within led many to turn on each other. The result was a litany of deeply unhealthy organizational practices: redbaiting, purity tests, loyalty oaths, splinter groups, secret meetings…. The conspiratorial reflex, which seeks to always find out some disfavored person’s “secret allegiances,” has done more damage to American radicalism than any libertarian writer alive. That tendency didn’t die with Joe McCarthy. It’s a recurring aspect of political organizing to this day. I know because I endured it during my antiwar days in the first half of last decade. I personally experienced every one of those bad habits I named above, and I witnessed them result in my own expulsion from antiwar groups and the dissolution of groups entirely. Anyone who doubts the capacity for conspiratorial accusations of bad associations to ruin radical politics has only to get acquainted with our history to be disabused of that doubt.
There’s a line of thinking that’s ascendant within the radical left today that imagines all of us to be little lefty Woodward and Bernsteins, “following the money” to see why we can judge others by our perception of their associations and allegiances rather than by what they actually say and do. “Hey, so-and-so might seem to be a good ally, but did you know he spoke at a Cato event in 1994?” That’s ruinous, particularly for a movement that needs friends.
Which brings us to the headline, and the triumphalist attitude it suggests: uh, actually, we don’t got this. We in the post-capitalist left, I’m sorry to say, don’t got much, at this point. I don’t know who wrote the headline, but I would ask that person: on what planet do we got the omnipresence of state violence, exactly? I would say that, quite on the contrary, the state’s got us, and until that changes, maybe we should take what allies we can get.
Update: Here’s Ackerman’s response.