LAURENT: There is No Such Thing as the ‘Alt-Left’

False Equivalence Is a Problem, Too

Wherein Raine Laurent dissects James Wolcott’s fatuous Vanity Fair column bemoaning the existence of a vaguely-defined “alt-left”.

James Wolcott’s recent Vanity Fair column is easy to torpedo. Wolcott feels that the “alt left” (a coinage minted by Sean Hannity, of all people) is a troubling presence on the American political landscape. The problem with Wolcott’s (and Hannity’s) assertion is that no such faction actually exists.

Walcott spends a lengthy introduction deconstructing a piece by Eileen Jones, in which Jones deconstructed Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe invective against Mr. Trump. He seems to have a great investment in critiquing Jones’ exasperation with Hollywood aristocracy posturing themselves as the first lines of defense against a burgeoning autocracy. But the only conclusion he really seems to offer is that because Jones does not consider Hollywood a viable font of political ideology, and because Laura Ingraham also once wrote a book complaining about celebrity “speechifying”, there is something called the “alt-left” and it shares some fundamental kinship with the reactionary nationalism of the alt-right.

In a supreme irony, Wolcott claims that this alt-left of his “exerts a powerful reality-distortion field online” and “fosters factionalism on the lib-left”. Never mind the Columbia School of Journalism’s recent study demonstrating the profound ideological inequality of the modern media landscape (fringe-right media is a beast all its own, with no real equivalent on the left).

He then proceeds to throw out a litany of names and publications (The Intercept, Tulsi Gabbard, Cornel West, Truthdig, Jacobin, Edward Snowden!) that form the ersatz canon of the “alt-left”. All of these figures, we are asked to assume, are interlocked in some kind of ideological web that Wolcott never bothers to explain, but he intimates that all of these persons and periodicals are the political turf of “dude bros” and “purity progressives” and are, implicitly, to be dismissed. For someone harping about the dangers of factionalism, Wolcott is heavily invested in the language of exclusion.

He goes further, building an entire, imaginary political bloc whose manifesto is collectively built from the misadventures of Susan Sarandon and Jill Stein. Wolcott implies that leftists love Putin, albeit for different reasons than fascists do, and exeunts with a supplication to the CIA to, like a deus ex machina, descend from the heavens to dethrone God Emperor Trump.

Wolcott’s musings are confused at best. He starts out critiquing Eileen Jones, representing a liberal demographic that distrusts Hollywood with all the opulence and indulgence it represents. But this same demographic that he so detests is also later defined by Susan Sarandon’s Twitter account. This alt-left, he asserts, is comprised primarily of white dude-bros, frustrated with class-blind identity politics and therefore (in Wolcott’s view) insensitive to race issues. Yet somehow these young anarchists are also slavish devotees of Cornel West, whom Wolcott is also eager to discredit.

The alt-left are political novices who think that Putin is a communist, but also read Chris Hedges and know their way around 21st century Marxism. It is a wonder that Mr. Wolcott doesn’t also rope in Thomas Picketty or Amy Goodman to be the centerpiece of his auto-da-fé, as hostile as he seems to be towards any intellectual or journalist leaning left of Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

At the end of this muddle all one can really parse is:

a) that there is a sector of the political left in America who is vehemently critical of the Democratic Party’s centrist stance

b) that their rhetoric is tantamount to a “reality distortion field”, and that

c) Mr. James Wolcott does not like them. No sir, not one bit.

At a glance one might assume that Mr. Wolcott is just another blip in the landscape of moderate culture critics who find the vehemence of partisan politics distasteful. Maybe that he is just a bit out of touch and is trusting too much in cherry picking social media for a portrait of the political niches he would like to describe.

At a more cynical glance, it’s easy to see what Wolcott’s real beef is, and it’s the beef that the Democrats have always had with the socialists and the communists and the labor and feminist and black liberation activists: who is entitled to ownership of the designation “left”? The Democrats would like to monopolize it, obviously, but the right-wing would also like for them to have it. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been calling Barack Obama, as big a friend as Wall Street ever had, a “socialist” for eight years.

But why?

There’s a political concept called the Overton Window. It’s a fancy name for the range of ideas that a society will entertain and engage with on a large scale. Outside that range, certain thoughts are functionally “unthinkable”. Per example, in the United States 2017, you might offer the idea “abortion should be outlawed except in particular medical cases”. This is a very stupid idea but it isn’t outside the range of acceptable thought. People will agree with it or people will debate it but it won’t be dismissed out of hand. Now, propose something like “women who commit adultery should be beheaded”, and you’re a lunatic. You’ve proposed a concept that is outside your society’s range of ideas, you’ve gone off the proverbial “deep end”. Our society’s Overton Window, thank god, is positioned differently than Saudia Arabia’s.

Now, let’s shift our Overton Window a bit more towards the center, to a place where government defense of basic bodily autonomy and civil liberties are a much greater priority than catering to the religious right, and “abortion should be restricted” might be as far outside your Overton Window as communal decapitation. The range of ideas a society will engage with is fluid. Locking that range of ideas in a space that is acceptable to the upper class is a function of our major political parties and our corporate owned media.

Noam Chomsky wrote in The Public Good that:

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate”

This has been evident in our political process for ages. How else could you have the ACA, an absolute windfall for the private insurance industry, generated in a conservative think tank, be decried as the beginning of “socialism” in America? That kind of nonsense is only possible when you don’t have any actual socialism allowed into public discourse to compare it to.

The concept is addressed in more detail in a 1990 interview with Adam Jones:

In the United States, the political system is a very marginal affair. There are two parties, so-called, but they’re really factions of the same party, the Business Party. Both represent some range of business interests. In fact, they can change their positions 180 degrees, and nobody even notices. In the 1984 election, for example, the issue was Keynesian growth versus fiscal conservatism. The Republicans were the party of Keynesian growth: big spending, deficits, and so on. The Democrats were the party of fiscal conservatism: watch the money supply, worry about the deficits, et cetera. Now, I didn’t see a single comment pointing out that the two parties had completely reversed their traditional positions. Traditionally, the Democrats are the party of Keynesian growth, and the Republicans the party of fiscal conservatism. So doesn’t it strike you that something must have happened? Well, actually, it makes sense. Both parties are essentially the same. The only question is how coalitions of investors have shifted around on tactical issues now and then. As they do, the parties shift to opposite positions, within a narrow spectrum.

Chomsky’s critique here is not unprecedented. More than a century ago, presidential candidate Eugene Debs noted:

The Republican and Democratic parties are alike capitalist parties — differing only in being committed to different sets of capitalist interests — they have the same principles under varying colors, are equally corrupt and are one in their subservience to capital and their hostility to labor.

Debs’s observation could as easily have been made this last January as in 1904. As Chomsky rightly asserts, alignments shift. Political parties are shaped largely by the directives of their donors. Republicans prefer fossil fuels and demolishing the public school system. Democrats prefer financial institutions and the pharmaceutical industry. Both are entirely willing to contradict their constituents to serve the donor class.

The Democrats are vital here. Because as long as we think of the Democrats as decidedly “left”, if we paint the Democrats and Republicans as two equidistant walls of acceptable political thought, then any political thought to the left of the Democrats is shut out as “extreme”. This is ideal for the wealthy individuals and massive corporations that effectively own the country. The Democrats may pester them with token regulations, they may occasionally patch up the welfare state to ease the burdens of the lower class, but they will do it all within a framework and within limits that remain preferable and profitable to the one percent.

With the Democrats positioned at the left-most limit of American politics, you don’t start dealing with the questions that make the upper class nervous. You don’t have people asking, “well, is capitalism sustainable? Is it ethically acceptable? “. You don’t have questions about the fundamental nature of property, or wages, or labor rights.

As long as Democrats are representative of the American left, then anybody asking “doesn’t everyone have the right to a job, to housing, to healthcare?”  “Is there a net good produced by the massive financial institutions that propel each of our new economic crises?”  “What do we need the rich for?”.  Those voices can be labeled “extreme”—they’re fringe, they’re radical, they’re “alt left”. And as soon as that loaded term is applied, we can toss those fundamental questions out. We’ve made them ludicrous, we’ve equated them with the genuine, demonstrably existent absurdity of the alt-right.

I am not implying that Mr. Wolcott is some kind of agent of the thought police, or some kind of conspirator in a propaganda war against the American people. Only that his confused and reactionary thinking is a product of, a perfect specimen of, the carefully controlled limits of public thought that the corporate state prefers to maintain.

Young people, in particular, are becoming increasingly critical of capitalism and its institutions. A flummoxed Nancy Pelosi responding to a student’s questions about the sustainability of global capitalism with a non-answer (“We’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is”) might be the first note of the democratic party’s swan song.

Increasingly swamped with angry constituents who want a genuine shift away from the corporate status quo, Democrats cannot perpetually sustain their role as the gatekeepers of leftist thought. And leftist thought is alive and well in America. The Democrats may not be willing to alienate the one percent or even to fight Mr. Trump’s reactionary nationalism. But socialists are. And have been. And will be—in spite of intractable centrists’ attempts to tar them as a fringe element, or demonize them with linguistic manipulations like “alt-left”.

As the democrats lose their credibility, the artificial boundary imposed on leftist political thought begins to give way. Mr. Trump’s kleptocracy, for all its flamboyant self interest and betrayed promises about American production, is not a new paradigm. It’s only the most unsubtle illustration of what civil government becomes in late stage capitalism. Our political representatives are largely a concierge class for the business interests that direct them – the corporate powers and aristocratic donors that Adam Smith referred to as “the masters of mankind”. With our entire election system irredeemably infected by private interests and entirely dependent on the whims of the one percent to function (a fact with which the American electorate is increasingly preoccupied) the antithetical nature of capitalism and democracy itself is an issue that requires confrontation.

Democrats, who offer no critique on the organization of our increasingly unequal society, are facing a real danger of irrelevance in a world theater where Marxist thought is vindicated, more openly and more thoroughly, with each passing year. Even on the social side, where democrats are most able to maintain the false dichotomy between themselves and the GOP, liberals are losing credibility. We are navigating a cultural landscape with an increasingly overt presence of nationalism and xenophobia.  Liberals, who have no real values except conciliation and compromise, have no ideology with which to counter and neutralize what some historians are even calling a foreboding of American fascism. With actual white supremacists in the White House and a brutal array of anti-LGBT action to come, it’s only natural that the public’s trust will shift away from liberals to people who advocate for and engage in fighting these forces with concrete action, not with empty slogans about “going high” and how “love Trumps hate”.

Liberals are increasingly swamped with their own inability to offer any principles that are fundamentally opposed to the viciousness of late stage capitalism. At their best they soften its flaws and work to ensure its survival, functioning as more of a spin room or an advertising agency than an actual political ideology. And this is exactly what leaves an entry for genuine leftist thought, however much Democrats and Mr. Wolcott may wish to shut it out.

What Mr. Wolcott either fails to understand or would like the public to forget is that centrist Democrats and conciliatory liberals do not in any substantive way represent the political “left”. But there is an increasing relevance and sympathy for a political force that does.

A specter is haunting America.

Featured image via Twitter


Raine Laurent is a socialist and social critic from the New Jersey wastelands. She has worn many hats: poet, actress, and sometimes journalist, but gave up on wearing hats because she now spends all her time tipping them to Bernie Sanders. Her greatest priorities in life are the acquisition of perks and a Karl Marx themed snow globe.