Problems with a left moral and political narrative

A leftist project in the United States needs to both be technically sound and politically persuasive. As Bhaskar Sunkara has often pointed out, the left right now is much too obsessed with the technical “wonky” side of the project. As a result, the moral and political arguments get neglected, and conservative moral and political narratives completely dominate. Despite its prevalence, no amount of chartblogging has yet managed to supplant the need for a strong, coherent political story that can motivate people to action.

Fixing this is harder than it might seem though. The left is a massively pluralistic segment of the political spectrum. There is no single or even dominant moral and political framework that leftists utilize. On the economic side of things alone, there are people who are primarily interested in decommodification and people who are primarily interested in distrbutive justice, among others. These are very different frameworks. The things you would say to create a decommodification narrative are very different from the things you would say to create a distributive justice narrative. So which ones do you use? Do you talk about the horror of having human interactions funneled through market mechanisms or do you talk about the horrors of inequality and want?

These two narratives are generally compatible (though not always), but the problem is that they are not unified. And that’s just two of them: there are dozens more. Conservatives have basically been saying the same unified thing for decades. It’s silly and jokish, but there is message discipline. While a pluralistic left is not that problematic in theory, when it comes to spinning a political and moral narrative in order to win, it presents a serious obstacle. In some ways, I think leftist wonkish blogging is a reasonable reaction to that pluralism. When you are just recording the numbers and research that support your program, you do not step into the minefield that is the massively pluralistic left. You don’t risk writing something within a distributive justice frame and having all the decommodifiers snipe at you for being too neoliberal or something.

It’s one thing to identify the need for moral and political discussion in the abstract; it’s another to actually explain how to do it under the circumstances. Presumably some segments of the left will have to abandon their particular brand of argument and fall in line. Would the alienation and decommodification crowd be willing to stop talking about the species-being for a while and talk about exploitation instead? Given what happened after Seth Ackerman’s recent piece in Jacobin, I highly doubt it. Would the distributive justice sorts be willing to abandon talks of transfers and income quintiles for a while and talk only about the inherent soul-draining experience of market interaction? I wouldn’t. Would the anti-oppression crowd be willing to shift their focus away from the non-structural oppression inherent in interpersonal interactions, the nature of which cannot be reduced to a set of principles or a program because such things are inherently under-inclusive and not derivative of the testimony and voices of oppressed identities? Not a chance.

The prominence of wonkery is certainly one of the impediments to the left making its moral and political case. But intra-left diversity is probably an even greater impediment, one that actually renders “apolitical” wonkery a more sensible approach than many will probably admit.