What’s Next?

The Future of the American Left


On Thursday November the 3rd of 2016, Freddie DeBoer got off work, walked his dog, and came to the filthy Brooklyn apartment of Amber A’Lee Frost to discuss the Presidential election and the state and future of the American left over Coronas. The following is a transcript of their conversation, with most of the “um”s and curse words taken out, so that they sound like serious intellectuals. Freddie is a self-described pessimist, Amber considers herself “irrationally optimistic.”

Amber A’Lee Frost: There’s been some alarm on the part of the democrats and the liberal media that early voter turnout has been quite low. Do you think we have to to fear a Trump presidency?

Freddie DeBoer: Well I think you have to fear everything. Certainly there’s a chance that he’ll win, but I don’t think it’s nearly as likely or as close as people think it is. If anything, the polls overestimate Trump’s chances because Trump has no ground game, and I think people are underestimating how incredibly important it is to have the kind of infrastructure in place that major parties do, and which many major organs of the GOP have declined to provide him. A huge amount of this stuff is just literally getting old ladies to the polls to vote. A lot of my friends are freaking out because they say there’s a 33% chance…

AAF: 538 has been completely schizophrenic this entire election.

FDB: They’ve been wrong over and over again. There’s a guy at Princeton called Sam Wang [Princeton Election Consortium] and he currently puts it at a less that 1%, because it remains the case that Trump has to run the board in a number of very competitive states, and she just has to pick off one or two.

AAF: I think that the Democratic Party will get out the vote like never before. I’m honestly not concerned. As I have said before, obviously I prefer a Hillary Presidency to a Trump Presidency. Policies aside, I think Democratic Presidents are good for resentment toward the Democratic Party. The anecdote I’ve used with you before is my time working for Democratic Socialists of America: we used to use the readership of The Nation to recruit socialists, but after the Iraq War their mailing list was useless to us because it stopped being a left magazine and became an anti-Bush magazine.

Under Obama the Anti-War movement essentially withered because people assumed the Dems would be better at foreign policy, but I don’t think things like Occupy Wall Street or the ascendency of Bernie’s campaign would have happened under a Republican President. I think that if Trump won, first of all we would never hear the end of it from fucking liberals, who would write history as if it was our fault and not their’s for nominating such an uninspiring neoliberal candidate. But more importantly, fellow travelers would be so focused on the real or perceived “rising tide of fascism” that they would lose focus on building something to the left of the liberals. But again, I’m not very worried.

FDB: Neither am I.

AAF: That said, I think we agree that Hillary is going to be a terrible President, especially regarding foreign policy. You’ve written a germane piece pretty recently that touches on your concerns regarding Syria, not just among liberals but on the left. Would you like to talk about that?

FDB: Yeah, so Syria has been in the lefty press a lot lately for reasons I’m not 100% sure of considering how long it’s been going on, though it’s obviously a horrific situation.

AAF: I assumed a lot of it has to do with the refugee crisis escalating in Europe and the US. I was sort of shocked at the amount of leftists that became interventionists over this instead of turning their attentions to the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee policies in their own countries.

FDB: I don’t know why people’s memories are so short, but it would be unthinkable five years ago to say there’s going to be a left-wing movement in favor of intervention in Syria. I’ll be a bit of a pig and say that I think part of it is just “Real Radical Syndrome,” where people want to posture and set themselves apart from what they see as the mass of the left, and being interventionist makes you sound kind of cool, and I don’t underestimate that. The thing about Iraq is you had all these beta male liberals who wanted to be invested in the war effort because they thought that it made them seem manly.

AAF: Yeah that era of bloggers was amazing, every guy who brought a briefcase to high school was calling for war.

FDB: Yeah, every Matt Yglesias Philosophy Major. But it also comes from a very deep and very emotional desire to fix things in Syria. And I think it is really reminiscent of a lot of really ugly periods in the left’s history. I’m not sure how much the average contemporary American leftist knows about the history of Red-Baiting, McCarthyism, sectarianism and factionalization and things like that, and as I say in the piece, my own life history is the history of left sectarianism.

From 2002 to 2005, I was a 30 hour a week anti-war activist, and I lived through every kind of factionalization and all the ways the left tore itself apart. I was in a campus anti-war group in college and it was really amazing in some ways. We got a lot of great events out there and we got a lot of people to protests. I was part of a group that organized what I think is still the largest anti-war demonstration in Hartford, Connecticut’s history.

But these groups were forever blowing themselves apart. In my campus anti-war group, people decided that they wanted to switch to a consensus-style leadership system —like where you got “twinkle fingers” in Zuccotti Park from. So the idea is, you’re respecting everyone’s voice because no decisions can be made unless everyone agrees to them. I believe then and I believe now that those things only work when everyone in your group agrees on everything.

AAF: Also it makes it incredibly easy to disrupt. If someone wants to derail your work it leaves you so vulnerable to infiltration.

FDB: The group can’t move until everyone agrees.

AAF: What Jo Freeman called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”

FDB: Yeah, so in a democracy you vote, and if you don’t like what the group is doing, you vote and you lose, but you’re heard. In a consensus, people will just keep going.

AAF: I mean I think you can argue that for major changes —the Brexit comes to mind—something as huge as leaving the European Union might have benefitted from a 2/3’s majority requirement, but consensus is just a delusion.

FDB: Right. So what ended up happening was that we had this debate for a couple of days, and it was me and a couple of people who were against it—we were in the clear minority. And so I said “well let’s just have this vote and I’ll lose” but people who wanted to switch to consensus said “no it’s such an important decision, we can only establish consensus through consensus.” And I said that makes no sense because we’re not on a consensus model yet. So what happened was one by one, the people against consensus and myself were pulled aside and asked not to come back to meetings. So a system that was ostensibly put in place to respect all voices ended up in a purge. That kind of thing.

AAF: That’s what happened with Zucotti too though, and to some degree I think sectarianism will always be a threat, but I do think it’s encouraging that consensus models are totally debunked now, and I don’t think that kind of anarchisty practice is really a threat anymore. I mean even the people I know who were behind it are now like “Let’s not do that again.”

FDB: Yeah, but I mean that sort of thing. I can’t tell you how many times I was invited to secret meetings or people tried to form factions within groups of 20 members.

AAF: Sure, that kind of organizing always ends up in surreptitiousness and a lack of transparency.

FDB: So I am sensitive to that sort of thing, and I’m seeing tons of it in the Syria debate. There are a lot of left-on-left attacks that accuse bad motives. At least when someone says “you’re a useful idiot” for Assad, they’re saying you’re unwittingly doing his bidding, but you’ll find plenty of people accusing anti-interventionists of being Assadists or working for Putin.

AAF: Well I’m paid by Putin. [laughter]

FDB: I would take Putin’s money. [laughter] So I wanted to write about it and say that these tactics are destructive, and I also wanted to make what I thought was a basic, not-Assadist opposition to war in Syria.

AAF: Which seems like it should be easy case to make.

FDB: Right, I thought it was pretty easy. After I made the case and the piece went up, the response has been really interesting.

AAF: I was talking to Nathan [editor of Freddie’s article at Current Affairs] and he was like “I didn’t really read what Freddie wrote, I just figured Freddie wrote it and it was fine,” and then they put it up and he was shocked by the fury of the responses, and a lot of them were leftists. I was pretty surprised. I thought we were all sort of on the same page after Iraq.

FDB: Right, and in Iraq there wasn’t a legitimate threat of a war with Russia. So one of the responses that I find very unhelpful is leftists who say there is zero threat of us actually putting boots on the ground and fighting away in Syria, or there is zero threat of us starting a war with Russia. I just think that reflects an incredibly naive perspective.

AAF: Right. We escalate very quickly. And we don’t need to “go to war” to bomb and murder people either. Did you see the Fusion video on Facebook? It was like this surprisingly very digestible and informative little video called “All The Countries the US is Currently Bombing,” and I was suddenly very disdainful of people who wouldn’t know this information, and then I only got six out of seven, because I completely forgot about Somalia! I was quickly chastened for my hubris. But I thought was was very smart about the video was that it ended by him saying that none of those campaigns are “wars” authorized by congress.

FDB: Everyone wants to have a no-fly zone.

AAF: Yes and it’s a very euphemistic word– that language sounds so non-threatening.

FDB: Right, and a no-fly zone means that if Russia sends their planes, you shoot them down. And even if you only believe there’s a 1% chance, that’s a 1% chance of major war, possibly nuclear war.

AAF: I find it incredibly likely that Hillary’s going to start at least one more war, official or not.

FDB: She was the single most important and most strident voice for our intervention in Libya, which has been a disaster. She was interviewed about it this past year that she doesn’t regret anything regarding Libya.

AAF: Traditionally the left is supposed to be the base for the anti-war movement, and we don’t have a strong left or really any anti-war movement. I mean I’m very encouraged by the ascendency and subsequent slaughter of Bernie at the hands of the Democratic Party. I think it’s great. That is my kind of accelerationism —anything that lays bare that there is zero future for even a cold war social democrat in the Democratic Party. At the same time though, I have little to no answer for the total dearth of something as major as the an organized anti-war movement, which has historically been driven by the left but also heavily populated by liberals.

FDB: Well I think the Sanders operation was really impressive and I think that the enthusiasm behind him is indicative of a very bad situation. People didn’t just decide to get behind a 75 year old Jewish socialist.

AAF: The last of the Cold War social democrats, but also an arguably good and honest man, which was very appealing to people.

FDB: The real problem is I don’t think that people are prepared to negotiate a future for the Sanders movement outside of the Democratic Party.

AAF: I do sort of agree with you, but honestly I am encouraged by some things I’m seeing. You and I sort of know some of the former Sanders people—at least peripherally—who are definitely having a “now what” moment knowing that people are invigorated at the very least by the idea of higher standards for our politics. Maybe they aren’t exactly politicized in the most comprehensive way, but I am encouraged by the popular response to him.

I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I recognized that I’m biased and enjoy a delusional optimism, but people are joining Democratic Socialists for America, people who are former Unite Blue Democrats, people are who communists and know about the nasty anti-communist history of DSA but recognize that the organization has changed and turned into this big tent for a political popular movement. We both knew that a presidential election wasn’t going to empower the people but there’s still energy there.

FDB: Right. I’m not nihilistic about this stuff and I am encouraged by the Sanders campaign but I think the really important question is “are the people who were really interested in getting Sanders the nomination willing to endure being outside the major parties?” Because for a lot of people, if there’s no chance of their candidate getting the nomination, they feel relegated to a backwater. I think we have to be very clear that the DNC center-right Democrats have a strangle-hold on the party and we know what the playbook is now: we know that anyone to the left of a center-right Democrat is going to be smeared as a misogynist, racist Bernie Bro. They will use identity politics to attack.

AAF: Yeah, the Podesta emails have been amazing, but of course only people like us read this shit. Though it’s a bit like having been gaslit for a year and half and finally being able to say “I told you! I fucking told you!”

FDB: It’s a refutation of someone like Matt Yglesias who says “oh clearly the Democrats are moving to the left.”

AAF: People are moving to the left!

FDB: Under pressure from a left-wing insurgency, Democrats have felt it necessary to act as if they are, but internally, the structures that run the party —the DNC, The Center for American Progress, The Clinton Foundation, the Obama Whitehouse —are not moving to the left, and they’re not going to give up power without smearing everyone who attempts to take it. That’s the fundamental battle.

AAF: And they certainly have many journalists churning out propaganda for them.

FDB: It was nice to see Neera Tanden admit that David Brock is insane.

AAF: [laughs] Yeah and when Peter Daou was…

FDB: “A little off.”

AAF: Yeah! He’s a little off!

FDB: [Finally laughs a tiny bit after three beers]

AAF: So we talked about how the left is ill-equipped to build an anti-war movement, but I do think what is also likely to suffer and possibly die under Hillary —the way anti-war basically died under Obama —is immigration. The left has almost entirely lost sight of a commitment to freedom of movement, and next to Trump Hillary appears less horrifying to immigrants, because he talks about building a wall, but there’s already a fucking wall, he just wants to make it gold and put his name on it.

I think the refugee crisis is going to get worse, not only with war but due to climate change-related disaster weather. I think racist and anti-immigration sentiment is becoming more and more pernicious globally, and I think Brexit is evidence of that. But I think the goal posts have moved when you have ostensibly left people saying “we want women and children” — there is a reactionary fear of men among liberals —and they’re talking about that as if it doesn’t mean tearing families apart and leaving men to suffer and die. I don’t see that getting better under Hillary. I think as with Obama and Iraq and Afghanistan, she will be perceived as an inheritor of these problems, and she will not move to the left on them.

FDB: I’m actually fairly optimistic that something will get done regarding immigration and the most vulnerable people, but it will be a horrible compromise. The basic reality of the major political parties right now is you have a coherent, awful vision, which is the Republican vision, and then you have a better but completely incoherent vision, which is the Democratic vision. Democrats want less harsh austerity, they want somewhat higher taxes than the Republicans. It’s the same with immigration. The Republican mainstream says “keep ‘em all out, no amnesty, lots of deportations.” It’s horrible, but its coherent. You ask what is the Democratic position on immigration, I can’t even really name it.

AAF: Sure, and I don’t think we’re powerful enough to really affect foreign policy which is very discouraging,

FDB: I’ve believed my entire adult life that the only hope for American foreign policy is American decline. Over time we will continue to lose our military advantage until we are forced to have a more sane foreign policy.

AAF: Yeah, I have no idea. No predictions, I just don’t think it’s something the left will have any effect on for a very long time.

FDB: Yeah, I don’t mean to be shitty, but I often say “we have to win, but we don’t deserve to win.” And the left really doesn’t deserve to win.

AAF: Yeah, the world deserves for us to win, and that includes us. I happen to believe that every bastard deserves better, and I say it as a bastard.

FDB: Sure, the world deserves and needs for the left to win, but the left does not do the things that makes itself worthy of winning.

AAF: That’s human nature though! And I’m a Marxist so I’m not even allowed to believe in human nature, but we suck and we’re full of folly and I love us! But I digress. But domestically, I think there is some potential. I can be optimistic about health care, I can be optimistic about wages. We don’t need a social democratic President or a progressive Congress to force those things. And the discourse around feminism, anti-racism, queer liberation —I’m actually very encouraged by those. I think the death of the struggle session, privilege politics identitarianism is real. I think people are very quickly realizing that those sorts of private languages are extremely classed and immaterial to most people. I’m extremely optimistic about young people and new ways of discussing identity without being identitarian.

FDB: Yeah, well a lot of people have evolved past animated gif feminism [a reference to feminists who tweet gifs of, say, Beyonce to sloganeer a very shallow and marketable brand of liberal feminism] but a lot of them get exhausted and become apolitical.

AAF: That’s possible but I don’t think the washout is necessarily widespread or permanent. I think what we have going for us is a growing sort of kernel of consciousness and a lot of exciting stuff happening around labor and wage demands. And I think we have to go back to “take shit, break shit” models of organizing. It’s coming back to the workplace. I think it’s going to be strikes and slow-downs and seizing the means of production. People are extremely skeptical of that because they think it’s harder with so few factory floors left in the US, but how much easier is it to seize the means when it’s just data and algorithms? I think stuff like Fight for 15 shows that traditional stuff still works.

FDB: Look I’m a pessimist, I don’t think things are going to get better, but if I was going to create in a lab my ideal movement, it would be Fight for 15, in large measure because it is immune to Clinton campaign style undermining with identity politics. I think even Peter Daou doesn’t have the vocabulary to tell a black mother of three that she shouldn’t be making $15 an hour.

AAF: I’m still thinking very long game. And I love Fight for 15 but it is still very small, not actually really a national movement, but we do agree the future lies in the workplace. I don’t think it stops at wages. A lot of the big unions are currently dead weight, but take something like National Nurses United and they’ve been tirelessly campaigning for socialized health care. It’s not a nurses for nurses union, they’re a larger political project with big political goals. And I think people are only going to look at another horrifying, shitty Democratic regime and know that we have do something outside of the Democratic Party.

FDB: We’ll see.