One of the most frustrating things about being on the left is the profound number of clowns who situate themselves beside me. We’ve got generational warfare clowns. We’ve got New Age gibberish clowns. We’ve got conspiracy theory clowns. And of course, we’ve got hippie drum circle clowns.
I call these, and others, clowns because their behavior seems primarily aimed at personal performance and tends to be accompanied by self-marginalizing lifestyles and costumes. While they seem to retain a broad thematic interest in left goals and can even occasionally explain them to you, their actions are more about personal lifestyles than about any principled interest in success.
This is especially true among the often-ridiculed, privileged, college student radicals. You know the type: the white kid going to an expensive private school on their parents’ dime, just wanting to learn how to lead The Good Life. These individuals are not generally interested in the kind of boring, long, and often unsuccessful work of running campaigns and winning. They are interested in their own personal purity, ridding themselves of the toxicity of living wrongly, oppressively, with unchecked privilege, and so on.
That is, the concern is inward towards themselves and their own “souls” if you will, not outwards towards others who are suffering. While I think this tendency exists broadly in the student left or in circles of immense material privilege, perhaps it is best found in the wheels-off concept of allyship.
In theory, allyship refers to those with privileged identities being deferential to and supportive of those with oppressed identities without telling them what to do. In these privileged student circles however, allyship is a competitive social justice sport where people try to rack up what I would call ally points. Allies buzz around learning how to be the best ally, chiming in about this or that privilege, this or that erasure, this or that marginalization. Self-appointed allies do this stuff never, it seems, to actually push things forward in meaningful ways, but generally just to salve their own discomfort, and purify themselves of badness.
People interested in purity leftism are ultimately selfish. When purity leftists do actions and organizing, their interest is not in reducing oppression as much as it is in reducing their own participation in it. Above all else, they want to be able to say that they are not oppressing, not that oppression has ended.
This interest in personal purity manifests itself ultimately in meaningless activism that achieves nothing. I have seen people undertake tiny 15-person student marches without clear messaging, community outreach, or even press outreach. I saw a group of purity leftists laugh once at a media outlet misreporting the name of their group, the joke being that the media outlet was somehow dumb for guessing wrongly, not that the organizers were dumb for failing to send out a release with correct information.
This seems like a terrible waste of time, and it is. To understand why these groups do things that are not only ineffective, but in some cases counter-productive, you have to first grasp purity leftism in all its glory. A purity leftist that carries out some action or campaign does not care whether it achieves anything. Just participating in the action, although a meaningless gesture, is a gesture nonetheless. And that gesture is the right one: it is fighting for the working class, or against fascism, or whatever else. It is participating in the fight that makes one pure: winning does not really matter.
Ultimately, the purity leftists are the most dangerous people in the clown left. They derail and delegitimize more serious left organizing with their endless calls for more purifying actions, even if those actions are so thoughtless and poorly done that they are guaranteed to have little effect. Like allies who rack up points by carrying out certain behaviors, these activismists rack up purity points by doing meaningless actions that skip 90% of the real work that goes into organizing success. In short, the inward focus of purity leftists conflicts with the outward focus of more serious leftism aimed at actually improving the lives of others. Although purity leftists are not the clowniest clowns, to me, they are the most obnoxious.