One Simple Trick to Game Communicative Performance Leftism

People have asked me to write a more general post about the Bernie Sanders interruption thing (beyond pointing out how amusing the explanation of it by its organizer was). I used to write posts about this campus style of language-obsessed, gesture-obsessed leftism, but I have greatly bored of it. So let’s just cut to the chase.

Consider first this quote from Electablog on the whole matter:

At times he plunged on, talking over the protesters as if they weren’t there. While he is largely a supporter of civil rights and is, in general, right on the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, he came across as a self-important know-it-all who has better things to do than to listen to uppity black kids who are disrupting HIS speech. In the end, he took off his microphone and left the stage without as much as a wave to the audience.

The author notes that Bernie is right on the substance of all these issues but then quibbles on about personal performances and gestures, without ever explaining why anyone should remotely care how someone personally performs or gestures. Of course, nobody bothers to hash out whether this communicative performance leftism of the campus set is at all interesting or important. You are just assumed to already be with that program.

But, you see, there is a pretty obvious problem with this brand of gesture-focused leftism that clever people can easily exploit. The problem is that talk is cheap and anyone who cares enough can just mirror the gestures you want them to make (thus flattering these strange politics) while doing whatever the hell they want when it comes to actual substance. It’s trivially easy to say what people want to hear while doing the exact opposite.

In fact, this protest provided a truly marvelous example of this method of juking communicative performance leftism. Look at this tweet from Jose Antonio Vargas, the moderator of the interrupted speech:

People ate that tweet up! And you can see why: he said exactly what we have decided people should say about erasure and all the other magic words. But the thing is, this tweet is 100% bullshit. Go watch the video of the interruption on YouTube. Multiple times Vargas made efforts to hush the protestors, holding his hand up to tell them to stop, and then verbally saying to hold off until the question and answer. He didn’t stop the interruption because everyone ignored him, not because he made no effort to do so.

The reality of what happened doesn’t matter here though. It’s the performative gestures that matter. You can literally on video tape try to shut down a protest and then turn around and, with the right words and signals, insist that you did the exact opposite of what everyone just saw you do, and people love it. This is the problem of a politics based on words.

Adventures in consensus

Some people like to use consensus decision-making processes. Some like it so much that they have declared that all other decision-making techniques are oppressive. When people are first confronted with the idea of needing unanimous support to approve of decisions, hypothetical problems immediately occur to them. What if you can’t get unanimous agreement? What do you do then?

I’ve yet to actually see anyone overcome this problem. The answer that is usually given is that you just don’t go forward with it if there isn’t unanimous agreement. But this answer assumes there is an agreeable baseline for what constitutes not going forward. It requires a theory of the default, which is impossible to construct. At minimum, it is impossible to construct it without disagreement, and that disagreement then recreates the whole unanimous consent problem once again.

Consider the following real-life example. At an occupy encampment, a proposal is made to ban smoking inside the perimeter of the encampment. As many left subcultures are big on smoking cigarettes, this generates considerable opposition. Unanimous consent is not achieved, not even close, and blocks are made.

What follows from what just happened? Well, you could say that what follows is that there will be no action to ban smoking inside the perimeter. But wait a minute. There was never any proposal to allow smoking inside the perimeter either. Such a proposal would also have failed to get unanimous consent and elicited blocks.

So there is not consent to allow or ban smoking in the area. How do you proceed? Here is where the theory of the default is necessary. You’d have to have a theory of what the default rule is, i.e. the rules governing what is allowed when no proposal has been passed one way or another. What is the default rule though? Is it to allow or to ban?

I think one natural reaction is to say that you allow it. Everything is allowed by default before it is banned through a proposal passed by consent. This is the most autonomy-promoting or whatever. But this can’t be true. Surely, it is not the case that by default I can go around the encampment punching people in the face until we have a proposal banning it.

So now you have to modify the default rule. Instead of everything being allowed by default, the new rule is that everything is allowed except if what you are doing physically harms others. This ensures that I cannot just punch people by default, but it throws into doubt what the default position on smoking should be. Does smoking harm others? It seems that second-hand smoke does harm others. So shouldn’t the default rule have been that you cannot smoke in camp, and the only way to allow it therefore would be through a proposal passing with consensus?

This approach to the default seems alright, but it problematically turns on empirical assessments. We know now through studies that second-hand smoke harms bystanders. But what if we did not know that for sure? What if some folks just thought it harmed others, but there was not definitive evidence? How would you proceed then? This theory of the default will not be able to function because there will be disagreement about what harms others and there will not always be evidence to settle that disagreement. So you find yourself in another consensus bind.

More than that, even when you have evidence, members of the group might deny that it qualifies as evidence. All sorts of people reject scientific research for instance, which would include, I’d presume, epidemiological studies. The left in particular has its fair share of New Age types who have beliefs about harms that are not verifiable scientifically. What do you do if one of them says wearing blue in the camp harms them by throwing off their chakras, and neither a proposal to allow nor ban wearing blue can get consensus?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of course. There are more interesting questions in how exactly you could use this process politically, especially in deciding who belongs to the community of people from whom consent is required for approval. For instance, when you decide or don’t decide to build more housing in your area, that affects tons of people who are not in your area, e.g. those who would end up moving there to fill the new housing at some future date. Do they have to be included? If yes, how could you even possibly identify who they are in advance? It’d be impossible.

For the most part, I find it really hard to get that enthused about process stuff altogether. In a universe of physical scarcity like ours, it is impossible to avoid some kind of force on others absent unanimous consent from all people about all things at all times. Once you admit that bar is foreclosed by the mechanics of a universe with matter scarcity, it seems like substance shows itself to be of way more importance than process.

Clarifying remarks on futile leftism

I wrote a post a couple of days ago titled The death spiral of futile leftism. The basic thesis of the piece is 1) there are people on the left who are involved in a futile purity rituals that are mainly self-centered and not about winning, and 2) the existence of such people attracts more such people and repels more success-oriented leftists. The net result is a death spiral for the left because futile leftism just begets more futile leftism. Or so my speculative stylized musings go.

This seems to have ruffled more feathers than I thought it would, if twitter and the comments on the post are worthwhile indicators. I think my remarks are basically correct. I just want to clarify that these remarks are not necessarily targeted at any particular ideology. As Sarah Jaffe mentioned on twitter: there are people of all ideological stripes who act this way. Liberals, Maoists, Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists, Avakianites, Beyists, Bookchinites, Mutualists, Bakuninites, and all the others have people in their ranks who do this kind of stuff. It is not constrained to any group: it’s a behavioral tendency.

For what it’s worth, I don’t actually think there is that much you can do to turn these kinds of people. I think the reason they behave this way is because they are motivated by different things than other people in those same groups. Their leftist politics provides them identity, activities, peers, and an aesthetic — a complete subcultural group. It provides to them the same things fraternities and sororities provide to others. Granted this is just my amateur psychoanalysis here based on personal experience, but that’s all anyone’s got on a topic this narrow.

The death spiral of futile leftism

The left-left side of the blogosphere is chattering about lefter-than-thou sniping that is apparently aimed at people associated with the Jacobin. For readers who don’t pay attention to that stuff, Jacobin magazine is a socialist magazine that is popular. The lefter-than-thou crowd is comprised of people who do everything they can to throw bombs at left-wing projects that are successful. The goal of the bomb-throwing, it appears, is not to actually achieve anything substantive; rather, it is to make damn sure everyone knows they are different from them, those leftists who aren’t the real leftists like they are.

I’ve written about the left purity cult before. From what I have seen, there is a non-trivial number of people for whom leftism is nothing but a personal affectation, a substitute for a personality, a way to get personal meaning, and so on. Me, me, me, me. This is especially true among the rich kid protester types. Their politics is one of personal self-actualization. They want to Do the Right Thing for themselves and make sure they are fighting the good fight. Just doing something that is nominally fighting, even if it lacks strategy or any theory of change, is enough because it means they are on the right side and their complicity with The Bad is extinguished. This purity ritual is as fun for them as it is useless for the actually suffering.

But the effect of this futile leftism is bigger than one might imagine. I suspect that futile leftism generates its own vicious feedback loop that generates yet more futile leftism. The problem is simple: there are people interested in masturbatory purity rituals and people interested in winning. When the left is dominantly in the clutches of the purity cultists, the competent have no interest in it.

The biggest challenge facing the left or any minority movement is convincing people to spend their time, energy, and other resources working with them. Most people, especially those people you should want to attract to your side, do not want to waste their time doing things that will achieve nothing. It is hard enough convincing someone that a minority movement can win, but that difficulty is compounded many times over when the movement itself is full of the type of people who do not actually care about winning. A person who remarks that they do not want to get involved because it looks like a bunch of self-congratulating actions that never lead to anything has a totally accurate assessment of the state of things.

What you get when the futile purity cultists take hold is a death spiral of increasing incompetence and futility. Those interested in futile nonsense are basically the only people attracted to thing: so their numbers hold steady or swell. Those opposed to futile nonsense flood out or never join to begin with. Futile leftism just begets more futile leftism because anyone halfway sensible would never bother to waste their time with it.

That is not to say that you have to become some sort of half-baked liberal to be successful. But you better have some notion of how A leads to B, and if you’ve pressed the denim-vest-with-patches-wearing contingent on the left, you’d know full well that there is no such story. Winning things from time to time and being able to articulate a vision of how this is supposed to work that is halfway plausible is the only way to attract the kind of people who are able to moderate leftist dipshittery.

As a postscript, let me say this. If you want to find examples of competent leftist organizing, it might make sense to check out regions that are the most hostile to it, and see how the leftists there do it. Cushy bubbles like New York City that are hospitable to left youth subcultures and have enough people to comprise a sizable left contingent are exactly the kinds of places where futile leftism seems most likely to fester. Leftists in other parts of the country, especially the South and Midwest, do not have the luxury.

Getting serious about using investment for social change

Divestment campaigns almost never work. Sometimes a campaign might actually get a fund to sell off and refuse to buy certain stocks, but rarely will it ever get enough funds to do so simultaneously, which is what’s necessary to actually exert any pressure. I suspect these kinds of campaigns are pursued in part because people don’t really understand what divestment means. They think that one entity “divesting” scores some sort of blow in and of itself. In reality, divesting just means swapping out owners: the entity divesting just sells of its ownership shares to some other party.

What does that accomplish? By itself absolutely nothing. Ownership shares swap hands every second of every day. That’s how markets work. However, if you can get enough actors to simultaneously sell off their shares (if they have any) and commit to not buying any in the future, then that can cause the share price to fall in at least two ways. First, by taking potential buyers out of the market, there are less actors competitively bidding for shares, which can reduce the price. Second, by taking potential buyers out of the market, the liquidity of any given share is reduced, exposing holders of those shares to greater risk. This risk should get priced into the share, which means the share price will fall.

From there, the theory goes, the management of the firm being targeted will cave to the demand in order to stop the divestment and boost its stock price. From the description alone, it should be clear how big of a long shot this strategy is. Getting a bunch of (usually very wealthy) managers of large funds on board with your politics enough to pass over a high-yielding investment is very unlikely. Not to mention that we have laws in this country that assign liability to fiduciaries of investment funds that do not act solely in the interest of the fund’s beneficiaries or participants (think pension funds for instance). So, passing over a good investment for political reasons could get you sued.

The long shot nature of divestment campaigns probably explains their general failure. But there are other ways. It astonishes me that there is so much focus in getting your money out of bad places. I guess it goes to the whole politics of personal purity the left in particular gets bogged down in. The most sensible thing, it seems, is not to pull your money out of bad places, but to plunge your money into them. If you want to get serious about using investment strategies to force companies to do something, collect money to buy out controlling shares in them.

Imagine, for instance, a donation-sponsored activist fund that was solely dedicated to buying out controlling shares in targeted companies, reforming the companies for purposes of social justice, and then selling their shares back out. With the money from the sale, the fund could then move on to the next targeted company, and so on. This would be a costly strategy: it would probably force the fund to absorb investment losses for each targeted strike. But if you could collect enough money and keep donations rolling into the thing, it could work. At the very least, it seems like a more plausible strategy than divestment for actually winning social change through these channels.