The left, selling itself short

Emmett Rensin has an interesting and provocative article today in the LA Review of Books, called “The Blathering Superego at the End of History.” Rensin is best known for his valuable campaign against what he calls “the smug style in American liberalism,” and this piece offers up more of the same, tearing into the condescending fact-checking technocratic ethos that has left a lot of mainstream liberals bewildered since the last election. I agree with most of what he has to say, and he has certainly found himself a worthy target. But I’m worried that he goes a little too far — responding to a fact-checking pseudo-politics with a vision of politics as just “ideological conflict” that underestimates the real political usefulness of facts. The risk, ironically, is the replacement of elitist managerial liberalism with a just-as-elitist leftist vanguardism, rather than a robust democratic vision for the left.

One example: Rensin sneers at liberals who “believed in climate change because scientists told them they should,” criticizing the ensuing conviction that “the trouble was not the metastatic excesses of capital but the failure of reactionaries to bow to empirical consensus.” But surely this is a false dichotomy! After all, the empirical consensus on climate change provides valuable new evidence of critical problems with capitalism that was not available to earlier generations of leftist theorists. Historians like Naomi Oreskes, sociologists like Bob Brulle, and investigative journalists like Jane Mayer have documented the sheer terror with which the right has regarded climate science for decades — and for good reason! The prospect of environmental catastrophe destroying livelihoods offers a powerful and accessible justification for the expansion of market regulation and democratic ownership in one of the largest sectors of the economy, more so than the comparatively a priori logical deductions of theorists past.

Other areas where today’s left has begun to successfully build mass movements also owe far more to empirical fact than abstract theory. Income inequality is one major example. Whatever the limitations of the Occupy movement, Rensin’s insistence that True Politics is about ideology, not facts, has a difficult time accounting for the fact that outrage at the fraction of total wealth owned by the top 1% — that is, an empirical social scientific fact — has served as a cornerstone for the greatest upsurge of youthful leftist energy (culminating in the Sanders campaign) in a generation. While Rensin dismisses liberals who rely on “the latest charts,” academic bestsellers like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and popular bloggers/tweeters like Matt Bruenig use charts effectively to galvanize support for a redistributionist agenda.

Similarly, empirical fact saturates the Black Lives Matter movement, another prominent and relatively successful recent leftist social movement. Whether emphasis is placed on the brute facts of particular incidents of police violence, statistical evidence of mounting incarceration, abuse and racial inequality in the increasingly privatized criminal justice system, or historical evidence of, to cite one prominent example, the roots of modern American policing in southern slave patrols, BLM demonstrates the ability of concrete social facts to aid organizers in the transformation of a relatively abstract moral intuition — the evil of racism — into a program for political action in our contemporary circumstances.

In other words, there’s no need for the left to sell itself short by ceding the territory of empirical fact to the center or the right. Empirical facts can bolster the leftist worldview — and often when the center and the right cite putative empirical knowledge in their own favor there is actually a methodological or factual error waiting to be exposed, in addition to other interpretive or moral shortcomings.

Perhaps the importance of empirical knowledge to BLM also explains, in part, why Rensin and some of his allies are occasionally rather clumsy when thinking about the role of race in leftist movement-building. There was a minor controversy this week on Twitter after Jacobin editor Connor Kilpatrick seemed to blame the rise of alt-right racism on leftists talking about “whiteness”:

Kilpatrick (whom Rensin later defended) seems to think that leftist activists should keep quiet about the operation of racism in society until revolution comes to purge white workers of their own racist sentiments:

The other reading, of course, is that Kilpatrick and Rensin actually think that the anti-racist analysis of whiteness (a strong tradition in Marxian social science stretching back to W.E.B. Du Bois and developed more formally over the last several decades) is wrong on its merits, which would be a different and even more troubling story. But giving them the benefit of the doubt, we still arrive at a position that is uncomfortably close to the condescending elitism that Rensin so justifiably despises in liberals. The white proletariat is just too damn stupid to hear about whiteness without immediately hopping on 4chan and becoming Nazis. Better to keep that knowledge to ourselves, for the time being, and spoon-feed them only the (deracialized) knowledge they can handle until they reform themselves through future revolutionary struggle.

I think this anti-democratic vanguardist impulse is the inevitable result of any vision that sees ideology, not facts, as what politics is properly concerned with (just like anti-democratic technocracy is the inevitable result of any vision that thinks facts can render ideology completely otiose). That’s because the ideological “ought” statements that Rensin thinks politics should really be about underdetermine programs for concrete action absent an empirical, factually-grounded understanding of the world we actually live in. Equality, redistribution, racial justice, economic democratization, dismantling the patriarchy, and so on are all important values, of course — but in order to know how to go about achieving those values (even if you think that the best way to do that is to plan a revolution!) at some point you’re gonna have to know concrete empirical things about the world. The question, then is whether you’ll be honest about that from the get-go, and trust people enough to make that knowledge public, accessible, open to consensus-formation as well as critical scrutiny — or pretend that ideology is enough, and end up smuggling the presuppositions and interpretations of an esoteric circle of leaders back through the rear door.

Rensin is right that elitist managerial liberalism opts for the latter choice, but I worry that Rensin’s own version of leftism does too. They become mirror images of one another: liberalism claiming the ability to cleanly sunder is from ought and pretending to discard the latter; Rensin claiming exactly the same thing and pretending that the is can be “derived” fluidly from an ought understood well enough and believed in passionately enough. He gives us Marx’s famous dictum that the point is to change the world, not to describe it. But Marx, arguably the first modern social scientist, sure did an awful lot of description anyways. It’s true that knowing what the world is like isn’t enough — the error of centrist liberalism. But you still can’t conceive of real change any other way.