Freddie deBoer is a hard-core socialist: a man who would like to see a worldwide revolution in which workers assume all political and economic power, distribute stuff on the basis of need, and assume shared ownership of society’s infrastructure and production. Or so he professes in his latest piece, which isn’t on his own Substack but, getting wider exposure, appears at the Free Press. That’s because he’s using the FP to promote his new book, which came out September 5. As the FP introduction written by Bari Weiss states,
In his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, Freddie tackles a riddle: why, given the seeming popularity of left-wing causes like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, has the American left achieved so little? How have the goals and ideals that made Freddie a progressive become so far removed from today’s mainstream left?
As well as diagnosing the problem, Freddie also offers some solutions. In this essay, adapted from his book, he offers his fellow progressives some advice. —BW
Here’s the book; click on it to go to its Amazon site:
Here are some of the Amazon blurbs, which aren’t exactly fulsome endorsements of the content, but do praise the book’s argumentation and style:
“This is strong stuff.” —Sam Tanenhaus, The New York Times Book Review
“[O]ne of the sharpest and funniest writers on the internet. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s always thoughtful and he pushes me to think. I hope his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, will be read especially by those on the left, because the left is where his heart lies and the failings of the left seem to break his heart most.”
—Pamela Paul, The New York Times
“DeBoer’s writing can be withering, as the best polemics often are, and few people will agree with all of his arguments. But his central point is important, whether you’re part of the political left, center or right: Calling out injustice isn’t the same as fighting it.” —David Leonhardt, The New York Times’s “The Morning” newsletter
“Freddie deBoer is someone I have long passionately disagreed with, but he writes like a dream, has a relentless intellect, and is always, always worth reading. Sharp, funny, brutal and able to skewer every conventional political platitude, he is particularly merciless tackling his own side.” —Andrew Sullivan
I would agree with the above if the book, which I haven’t seen, makes a strong case for worldwide socialism, something I don’t endorse. Fortunately, the Free Press piece below, which you can see by clicking on the headline, isn’t an argument for socialism but rather a collection of advice for the Left about how to achieve political progress. And this piece I endorse.
The overriding message of deBoer is expressed in his title: the Elite Left has screwed up social progress because they countenance nonsense, uses simple language that turns off (or baffles) the average person, and engages in identity politics when they should be concentrating on what unifies the oppressed: social class. I’ll give a few of deBoer’s arguments in bold (my own take), and support them with his quotes (indented):
A.) The Left needs to stop doing identity politics with ever-smaller groups and concentrate on larger groups, regardless of ethnicity, that suffer from similar problems. (Note that this was the message of Coleman Hughes’s TED talk that we recently discussed.) deBoer:
The problem with identity politics is that any given identity is always going to be smaller than the broader possible coalition you could assemble, and almost always smaller than you need to create change.
Consider police violence. Annually, a majority of people killed by the police are white. During the days of greatest public anger about George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, pointing out this fact came to be seen as wicked and racist; we weren’t worrying about white people in that moment, the story went. But white people have a large numerical majority in the United States, an even larger numerical majority among voters, and (as the anti-racist set will tell you) enjoy disproportionate power in our political system.
So, what’s the more effective message?
Police violence is a black people problem that only black people suffer from, a message that will convince a lot of white people that it’s not their problem?
Police violence falls especially hard on the black community, but it hurts all of us, and, in fact, a majority of the victims are white?
We need a national reckoning with this problem to stop the violence and save innocent people of all races. It’s in the best interest of all of us.
The second message avoids defining the problem as a “black problem.” We can still recognize, as a community of the like-minded, that police violence against black Americans is vastly disproportionate and an expression of racism. But when we engage in politics, in the work of trying to build the biggest coalition possible for making change, we should not pretend that police violence is only a black problem.
B.) The Left should be concentrating on class rather than race or ethnicity. deBoer uses labor unions as an example:
Labor unions have long been one of the best counterweights to corporate influence in politics. They are also traditionally a means of organizing that cuts across racial and ethnic lines. Obviously, shared participation in a union does not eradicate bigotry, and there is an ignominious history of unions perpetuating racial inequality. But it’s also true that, at their best, labor unions have helped workers (mostly men) of different racial backgrounds see their shared interest as workers. This solidarity could never fully erase racial division, but it could convince people that their similar needs could unite them around common purpose.
. . . Too often, the left today seems determined to take the opposite approach. Many people on the left seem so dedicated to dividing up the world into smaller and smaller constituencies. You might consider the narrowing of “people of color” to “BIPOC,” black and indigenous people of color. The purpose of that distinction is to underline the greater oppression that black and indigenous Americans have endured than other people of color. And they probably have. The operative question, though, is: What is the political value of dividing up progressive constituencies into smaller and smaller groups? How does that help anyone achieve any of their specific aims, including BIPOC people?
Organizing along class lines does not mean we should stop messaging about race, gender, or sexual identity. When the problem is racism, call it racism. Never shy away from confronting racial or gender inequality in explicit and frank terms. But orienting around class lines means we create the majorities necessary to actually do something about racism, about sexism, et cetera.
I think he’s right, as the present “identity-politics” strategy hasn’t really done much about racism or the lower educational and professional welfare of minorities. What it has done is made a lot of noise and chilled the speech of anybody who wants to discuss these issues. In contrast, the great strides made in civil rights during the Martin Luther King era weren’t made by concentrating on class. Rather, they were made by appealing to the moral sentiments of people, who couldn’t abide actually seeing black people attacked with billy clubs, fire hoses, and dogs. Here I’d disagree with deBoer’s claim that the progress was achieved by “convincing people that their similar needs could unite them around common purpose”—unless you conceive of the “common purpose” as achieving a more moral society rather than a society in which more people had civil rights.
C.) The Left should stop using impenetrable and obscurantist jargon, or chiding people for using “harmful” language.
Look at the use of the word bodies, most often heard in relation to black bodies. At some point in the past half decade or so, it became the fashion in left discursive spaces to speak about black bodies instead of black people—“this protest was marked by the presence of black bodies, the white gaze fetishizes black bodies, academia is inhospitable to black bodies.”
If I squint hard enough, I can sort of understand the rationale here; emphasizing bodies emphasizes corporeality, the physical reality of having a body, and in doing so underlines the threat black people are often under. I could, I suppose, see the utility of saying, “The police’s actions put black bodies in danger.” But too often, black bodies is just an awkward and exclusionary euphemism for people, and a term used to show that someone is a savvy, progressive person with the correct attitudes toward race.
I agree completely; the term “black bodies” is simply off-putting, but the elites have made it into not just an acceptable term, but a preferred term. deBoer also criticizes those who go after “ableist” language like “I see what you mean” (yes, people do go after that!) or the term “field work”, which was deemed racist by the University of Southern California. Language policing accomplishes nothing.
D.) The Left should “stop waiting for the revolution”. deBoer uses the examples of gay marriage as an issue that took ages of hard work to come about, but eventually became the law. deBoer now adds universal health care to one of the issues necessary for a good society, but accomplishing that will take an even longer time and harder work. Performative wokeness and language policing won’t get it done.
. . . if single-payer were passed tomorrow, we would have to start defending it tomorrow. We’d have to fight over how generous the benefits were. We would have to ensure that dental and vision benefits were covered. We would have to prevent the inevitable attempts by conservatives to tear down the system entirely or to make it considerably less generous, as they already do with Medicare and Social Security. There would be no rest.
This is, I concede, a depressing condition, an exhausting one. But there’s no alternative. And perhaps there shouldn’t be. I still yearn for revolution, but I now recognize that any revolution must be a permanent one, in the sense meant by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—that a perpetual revolutionary class must exist, remaining independent from the political machinery of its day and constantly pressing for a more radical future, even after great victory. This is the only way to truly secure the best good for the most people. We must see political success as an ever-receding horizon.
The steady and unromantic work of making the world a little better, one day at a time, has its own rewards. Wherever you are, there are likely organizations whose work is consonant with your values. Research them. Go to a meeting. See if they’re the kind of people you would be happy to work with. Then picket, or protest, or persuade, or stuff envelopes, or hand out leaflets, or bug your state legislator, or hold a sign by the side of the highway, or organize a tenants’ association, or raise money, or boycott, or what you will. You will not be able to see the change you make. But you will feel it anyway.
I agree with nearly all of these points, each of which shows how the Left, prodded by the elite Left, has fallen into maladaptive tactics. It often seems to me that people engaged in performative wokeness—whether it be policing language like field work, changing the names of of birds, toppling statues, or arguing that biological sex is a spectrum—sren’t really interested in changing society so much, as that’s too much work. It’s much easier to change the names of birds.
But such endeavors accomplish nothing. Just think of the work it took to get the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts passed. There was no arguing about terminology or bird names: there was marching, lobbying, writing, and endless speaking. I may not agree with deBoer’s socialism, but I do agree that the Left, prodded largely by the “elite” Left, has lost its way, and has degenerated in a series of actions that, while good at calling attention to one’s virtue, is very bad at enacting the kind of social change that’s the virtue-laden deem necessary.
And the final lesson: you don’t have to be a liberal or a capitalist to think that wokeism is nuts, because even a Marxist-adjacent socialist thinks so, too.