The USA is a failed state and it won’t surprise you why I think so. In the coming week you will be able to read (I imagine literally) tens of thousands of thinkpieces about the events in Washington and I won’t belabor it. The revanchist movement that stormed the Capitol may be the death rattle of the Trump administration but it is also an expression of business as usual and an example of chickens coming home to roost. The cope is to act as though this is something Trump has done to us but the reality is that this is American as apple pie. This is going nowhere. This is just getting started.
True to form, my disgust with the right is balanced – not matched, but balanced – by my despair over the response from the left, if that’s what we want to call it. What I saw yesterday was a liberalism/Democratic party/left that is not just ignorance towards what power is, how to gain it, and how to wield it, but seeming uninterested in power at all.
The highest, most noble pursuit in this political era is the identification of injustice, the identification of inequality. The greatest laurel is to be someone saying “this is wrong,” to declare to the world that some justice exists. Left-wing discursive spaces are dominated by this behavior; it’s so endemic that I sometimes wonder if people understand that there is more to politics than saying “this is wrong.” We are all to be witnesses to injustices, with all the passivity that implies.
Look, don’t take my word for it. Go on social media or the takes media. Keep a running count of how many people say “here is an injustice,” identifying the ways in which black people or woman or queer people etc suffer in comparison to others. (Usually these claims will be accurate.) Now, keep a running count of the number of people who say “here is a solution to an injustice, a plausible way to change the world to alleviate suffering.” Go ahead, do it.
Identifying problems is easy and cheap and permits one to affect radicalism. Proposing meaningful solutions is much more fraught. Solutions are hard. Solutions are messy. Solutions are inherently unsatisfying. And, crucially, solutions require an honest and frequently uncomfortable accounting of whether you can possibly achieve them without the support of people who largely do not share your culture or your values. Sometimes asking how to get what you want leads you to the conclusion that you have to appeal to the very people you’ve been saying are irredeemable. Today the habit is for people to say that they need to convince no one, that the only political task is to rally the already convinced. A comforting idea. If it’s true.
The most charitable explanation for the obsession with identification and naming is misunderstanding, that these people simply don’t understand power and how change is made. They constantly make appeals to the heavens because they believe, very deeply, that if you identify injustice often enough some cosmic authority will hear you and… well, it’s unclear. This is the reason for the utter obsession with what you call things. You will have heard, in the past few years, liberals demanding that you call things by their right names – call it fascism! call it white supremacy! call it a coup! But suppose everybody did. So what? What changes in the world if people call something white supremacy instead of vanilla racism? How does it alter the distribution of power? How does it enable you to change the world? There are the things you want and the people who don’t want you to have them and there is your power relative to them. How does calling it fascism change that calculation? What difference does it make?
Others have referred to this behavior as “working the refs.” In sports an athlete might consistently complain to a referee about unfairness in calls, in the hopes that the refs will respond to that unfairness and fix things. And so the left acts similarly, telling the universe that there is injustice in the hopes that this will change things.
The problem of course is that the premise is nonsense: it doesn’t matter if you tell the universe that there is an injustice, because there are no refs. There is no impartial authority to whom you can appeal. What I think so often, when engaging with liberal political expression, is “who are you talking to?” What is the purpose of all of these appeals to injustice? The function? What do people think is going to happen by constantly identifying injustice? What is the theory of the world, the theory of power? I have no idea. I have no idea.
Yesterday was the epitome of this behavior. Untold thousands of people, I’m guessing hundreds of thousands, made the same observation: the response by the police to the MAGA insurrectionists was far gentler and less aggressive than that towards Black Lives Matter protesters. And that’s true. That’s a correct observation. And it is bad. The question that someone has to ask is, what is the utility of thousands of people making the same observation, to each other? You had so many people united in the same action, but an action that had no concrete relationship to the problem at all. What were all those people doing? What difference did they think it would make? Appealing to the country? But the country has heard this complaint for years and done nothing. You don’t appeal to the undecided by complaining about injustice but by appealing to their best interest. But the attitude is always that we should have to offer undecided people nothing, that they should get on board with our program simply because of our claims to justice. But nobody cares about that. They just don’t.
A darker possibility, for why the left has devolved to only identifying injustice rather than grappling with power, is that people are fixated on naming injustice rather than solving injustice because this is what the social systems reward. People spend all day pointing out inequalities like racial inequalities all day because they receive praise for doing so. Saying “black people have to live like this, white people get to live like this” – with no attendant consideration of how to change the world so that black and white live similarly – rakes in praise in person and in digital strokes online. Careers in media, academia, and the professional organizer industrial complex are built on these statements. These statements are surefire crowd pleasers on social media. They’re easy and they get you points and so people repeat them. That’s another theory.
The darkest possibility is that the left is fixated on identifying injustice without doing anything about it because its members don’t actually want things to change. They are better served by the status quo, either because they benefit from the unequal distribution of power in the world or, as I think is true for very many, they are more comfortable being beautiful losers. There is something very beguiling about being the permanent plucky underdog. You can speak truth to power but never have to grapple with the weight of wielding it. You can throw spitballs from the back of the class, devoting your life to the pleasures of critique. And then there are the allies. The very concept of the ally has always made me shiver; there is something so parasitic about it, so stuffed with condescension. When I see loud white allies, self-identifying as such, I always see head-patting, treating black people as poor little vessels for benevolent white appeals to justice rather than autonomous agents who want things and strive for them and are sometimes wrong. And in the most materialist sense there is a huge constellation of “social justice” organizations that generate a ton of money and keep a lot of people in jobs, and if they ever fulfilled their ostensible function they would cease to exist. So who wants change?
I have, at this point, essentially abandoned the concept of justice, at least as a political phenomenon. I’m sure I still often use the language of justice casually. But in a fundamental sense I do not understand who the concept of justice is helping. Justice, as a target, has made the left into a cult, one that appeals constantly to a higher power that never appears and never delivers on anything. The appeal to justice is the most common act of left-wing practice and the most useless. I have never seen a single bit of good done through an appeal to justice. Instead I only see millions of people, ringed around a ziggurat, praying to a God who isn’t there. Justice does not exist in the corporeal universe. There is no justice. There is only power.
What do you want? Who doesn’t want you to get it? Which of you has more power? How can you gain more power to get what you want if you need it? Those are the only political questions I care about anymore. Unfortunately, the left seems not only unable to answer them, but indifferent to whether they have answers at all.