An Interest in Being Unique

Matt Yglesias has a piece at Slow Boring about the attitudinal differences between socialists and anarchists. In his telling, socialists are focused on building alternative non-capitalist institutions, which often includes boring, technical administrative challenges, while anarchists are focused on negating or disrupting capitalist institutions, which is a kind of anti-politics that mostly aims at being cool and countercultural.

I’ve thought a lot about this question over the years, not so much in this socialists-versus-anarchists vein but just more broadly about the different attitudes, personalities, and approaches people who are engaged in politics often have. From what I have observed over 20-odd years of political engagement, the divergence that Yglesias identifies between socialists and anarchists can actually be found within each of those groups and also within pretty much any political grouping right-wing, left-wing, or otherwise.

A better way to think about this may be that how a particular person approaches their political advocacy is just a (mostly) separate thing from the content of their political advocacy. In simplified terms, you find people who want to feel like they are unique, fringe, and an embattled minority and people who want to feel normal, mainstream, and common-sensical. These different desires sometimes drive people to one or another political viewpoints but they also manifest themselves in rhetorical and presentational choices within each political viewpoint.

For example, there are social conservatives who are very invested in the idea that what they want when it comes to things like sexuality and relationships and the like is normal and mainstream and that everything else is the stuff of freaks and weirdos. But you can also find social conservatives these days especially who relish in the idea that they are the freaks, the counterculture, the embattled minority who knows the truth and lives it defiantly.

Within libertarianism, you will find advocates who present themselves as very normal and who see it as utterly common-sensical that people want the government off their back, including many advocates who tend to focus on scaling back foreign policy, cutting tax, and rolling back certain kinds of rules, boring stuff in other words. But then you will also find people who view libertarianism as a radical break, an essentially revolutionary politics and these individuals often partake in quite a bit of countercultural living themselves: principled childlessness, non-monogamy, drugs, etc.

Even among the the center-left, there are clearly some who are attracted to the idea that they are in a tiny minority of people who sees how close we are to a complete totalitarian state and who engage in politics in a totally wild-eyed way. The precise nature of the incipient totalitarianism seems to drift year to year for these people, but their approach to political engagement, which is fringe and bizarre, does not change and they seem to relish being among the few seers.

On the left, where I know the situation best, one way to spot this divide is by seeing how different people describe the same kinds of policies. For some, it is clearly important that various left policy items be described in very radical-sounding terms (e.g. shattering the capitalist health sector and decommodifying medicine) while others care less about that and even evince a preference for the opposite (e.g. extending public insurance to everyone).

One way of presenting this is to just say there are “radicals” and “moderates” within any given politics, but I think this tends to overstate the extent to which this different behavior is driven by substance as opposed to personality.

If you have followed me for the 13 or so years I have been writing publicly about politics, you’ve probably noticed that, though I am at times aggressive about how I approach things, I tend to be more drawn towards depicting socialist things in the most mainstream and moderate-sounding ways. I’d like to say that this is a strategic choice I have made to restrain my radical impulses in service of trying to popularize left-wing ideas. But it is probably more driven by my personality than anything else.

Because every political grouping has a diversity of personalities and therefore styles of engagement within it, you can kind of find whatever it is you want to hate within it. Generally this takes the form of finding someone with a more fringe-seeking personality and highlighting their rhetorical excesses as representative of the whole. But it can also take the form of finding people with the more normie-seeking personalities and highlighting them as indicative of how lame and cringe their politics are.

This is a very tempting thing to do and I’ve seen more than a handful of pundits who I previously thought had interesting things to say get sucked into this kind of “nutpicking” as their main approach to social media or content creation. Yglesias does not do this. So this is not a point about him. But others do and it’s really an unfortunate thing to see people replace interesting political and economic analysis with picking on personalities, essentially the stuff of interpersonal gossip, but masquerading as something more than that.

I’ve definitely had periods, especially when I was in my early 20s, where I was intensely irritated by what I now realize are personality types, especially on the left where I have been situated for so long. But it doesn’t really bother me anymore, even when these personality divergences result in people sniping at me for no good reason, which happens occasionally.

I think more people for whom politics is a big part of their life would have a better time if they could distinguish personality differences from substantive differences and ask themselves in any given instance whether someone who is extremely irritating to you actually has extremely bad and stupid politics or if you have decided that they do because you can’t stand them for non-political reasons.