Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote an excellent piece in The Guardian speaking to radical leftists who sat out the Women’s March in 2017. Not only did they sit it out, but many took to social media to scribble furiously and self-righteously about how the Women’s March was for centrist liberals — that the hats were stupid, that some of the signs were offensive, that there were too many white people, too many Clinton supporters, too many capitalists, and so forth. (I’m sure your incisive Facebook takedown of that centrist protest sign you saw online is going to change the world there, Steven.)
What the hell is going on here?
Based on my own observations at protest rallies, the same radical leftists who were active on social media but didn’t show up to the Women’s March were also missing at rallies concerning Black Lives Matter, the Muslim travel ban, refugees/dreamers, even Occupy. In other words, I don’t think the absence of radicals is especially noteworthy with regards to the Women’s March alone. Many of these same radicals sit out other progressive rallies too. I think they just complain about the Women’s March (and frankly, brag about not attending it) due to the wildly high attendance and success of the Women’s March. But, why would leftists feel pride at not attending the Women’s March?
In her piece on ‘left melancholia’ inspired by Walter Benjamin, Wendy Brown explains that leftists sometimes pluck concepts or ideas from the past (e.g., ‘capital’ from Marx) and simply drop them into the present—without responding openly and critically to the world as it is. This signifies a rigidity of thought and (Brown writes) a “narcissistic identification with orthodoxy.” A left melancholic tells themselves that the progressive movement in which they would participate would be one in which all of the members see the world exactly as they do, are engaged in protest in the same way that they are, reference the same authors and concepts that they do. This left melancholic is “a revolutionary hack who is finally not serious about change.” This is, Brown states, conservative leftism.
I agree entirely with Brown’s analysis. But I’m going to push this idea further. In the 1930’s, when Benjamin coined the concept, perhaps it was indeed accurate to call it melancholia. Likewise, when Brown revisited the idea in 1999. But things seem different in 2018. We are witnesses to the largest anti-right-wing protests in American history. But, by many accounts, the majority of people showing up to these protests are liberals, Democrats, or centrists, and not the leftist radicals who have been dreaming about protest and revolution for decades. Why is this? We have before us a perfect mass opportunity to publicly discuss and advocate for our ideas and beliefs. Where are the radicals?
I believe that this dilemma demands more than an analysis of ‘left melancholia’. Because, at this moment, we finally have a massive popular uprising against the right wing: it’s here and it’s growing. Like Taylor, I’m baffled by the leftists who sat out the Women’s March and seem positively giddy about their own cynical purism. As she writes, people “become radicals through their own frustrating experiences with the system” but also through working, reading and collaborating with “people who became radical before them.” When we refuse to collaborate with other left wing people (or worse, “mock, deride or dismiss” them), we help no one. Quite simply, it’s “infantile” and a sign of “political immaturity.”
These conservative leftists have what we might tentatively call “political masochism” — an enjoyment of and desire for their own political failures: they want to suffer for holding unpopular ideas. They love to feel hopeless. This masochistic love is pure and detached: it has no chance of being tested in the real world. Like a jealous lover, what these leftists hate and fear is anything that troubles the purity of their love. The Women’s March is such a threat: its popularity could rob them of their deep, comfortable pleasure in suffering. Thus, it is no surprise that these conservative leftists spend as much time (or more) attacking liberals as they do opposing the right wing. While the right wing enables the precious political masochism of the conservative leftist, the activist liberal threatens it.
It’s time for the conservative leftist to ditch this political masochism and join the protests in the streets. Your old love may be perfect; this one will not be. At protest rallies, you will come into contact with those who may not understand Marx’s notion of capital, who may not know Firestone’s critique of marriage, and who — god forbid — may not sit patiently and listen to your lectures. They will sometimes want you to listen to them. Finding solidarity with others is necessarily a difficult and messy process. But, as Jodi Dean tells us, you may surprise yourself: you may end up falling in love with the crowd. And this will be a risk to your current love affair.
Your political masochism is perfect. And solidarity with comrades will never be. Love isn’t.