By Park MacDougald
Posted September 4, 2021
“The most vulgar, simplistic view of the Left — that dissolves all the supposed distinctions between centrists, liberals, leftists, socialists, communists into one homogenous Democratic blob — happens to be correct.” So writes Benedict Cryptofash, an anonymous Twitter user and self-described “anti-leftist” whose other theoretical contributions include “the Left and Right are fake and gay” and “only libtards care about policy”.
Despite appearances, Cryptofash — his pseudonym mocks the tendency of online leftists to accuse their critics of “cryptofascism” — is not your typical Right-wing internet troll. He’s a Marxist who regards “leftism” as the ideology of bourgeois supremacy, the twenty-first-century equivalent of the classical liberalism that Karl Marx spent his mature years attempting to demolish. “My critique focuses on the Left,” Cryptofash writes in one of his periodic straight tweets, “not because they are worse than the Right, but because they are better than the right at precluding proletarian class consciousness.”
Cryptofash is one of the more visible members of a political tendency known as the “post-Left”, the latest in the endless stream of new and strange ideologies thrown up by social media. Although professing commitment to traditionally Left-wing goals such as anti-capitalism, the post-leftists are defined mostly by their aggressive hostility to both the Democratic Party and the radical Left — including the Democratic Socialists of America and the academic-literary Left of magazines such as Jacobin, n+1 and Dissent.
Aside from Cryptofash, other leading lights include What’s Left? co-hosts Aimee Terese and Oliver Bateman, editor of The Bellows Edwin Aponte, the Irish writer Angela Nagle and a coterie of pseudonymous Twitter accounts, such as @ghostofchristo1. Red Scare co-hosts Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova might be considered fellow travellers.
The core assertion of the post-Left is relatively simple: The real ruling class in America is the progressive oligarchy represented politically by the Democratic Party. The Democrats are the party of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the Ivy League, the media, the upper layers of the national security state and federal bureaucracy, and of highly educated professionals in general. The Republicans, however loathsome, are largely a distraction — a tenuous alliance between a minority faction of the ruling class and petit bourgeois.
Effectively incapable of governing outside the bounds set by the Democrats and Democrat-aligned media, corporations, NGOs and government bureaucracies, the GOP’s real function is to serve as a sort of ideological bogeyman. By positioning itself as the last line of defence against phantasmic threats of “fascism” and “white nationalism” coming from the Right, the ruling class is able to legitimise its own power and conceal the domination on which that power rests.
Leftists, in this telling — whether Ivy League professors or Antifa militants on the streets of Portland — are thus little more than the unwitting dupes of the ruling class. However much they profess to hate the Democratic Party, they are, in practice, its running-dog lackeys. They support the party electorally, harass and cancel its designated enemies and enforce pro-Democrat ideology in the media, academia and the workplace. Crucially, they also help maintain the permanent state of moral emergency that serves as a pretext for the expansion of ruling class power, whether in the form of the increasingly direct control that tech monopolies wield over political discourse or the pursuit of Covid policies that transfer wealth upward and subject workers to a dystopian regime of medical surveillance.
At the core of this diagnosis is the idea that “identity politics”, “antiracism”, “intersectionality” and other pillars of the progressive culture war are mystifications whose function is to demoralise and divide the proletariat.
Similar criticisms have been made by Left-wing writers such as Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, but whereas these “class-first” leftists tend to regard “identitarianism” as a liberal deviation from authentic leftism, the post-leftists regard the idea that there still is a radical Left meaningfully distinct from the Democrats as meaningless. And because post-leftists see the Democrats, and by extension the Left, as their primary enemy, they have no problem engaging and even entering into provisional alliances with the populist Right, especially on cultural issues. Hence the right-wing memes.
Of course, the post-leftists operate at varying levels of coherence and theoretical sophistication, and most of them have produced far more in the way of podcasts and tweets than sustained considerations of political theory. (Cynically, one might say they are less of a “tendency” than a Twitter clique centered around Aimee Terese.) But it would be a mistake to dismiss it altogether on those grounds — the Dirtbag Left’s Chapo Trap House podcast, after all, has played an outsized role in the revival of millennial socialism, and it is always difficult to predict which of today’s shitposters will be setting the tone of the culture five years from now.
For one thing, the post-Left channels powerful currents of Marxist and post-Marxist critique that have been downplayed or forgotten during the “Great Awokening” and the recent socialist renaissance: from Amadeo Bordiga’s communist hostility to “anti-fascist” collaboration with the bourgeoisie to Christopher Lasch’s early writings about the medical-therapeutic state as a tool of class domination.
But perhaps the most obvious spiritual predecessor to the post-Left is the Italian-American philosopher Paul Piccone, the founder and long-time editor of the critical theory journal Telos and another Marxist who eventually left the Left only to find himself in a strange alliance with the Right.
Piccone began his career as a disciple of Herbert Marcuse and proponent of his theory of “one-dimensionality”, which held that capitalism had advanced to such a degree in the West as to effectively abolish all opposition to itself. With the proletariat co-opted by consumerism, radicals, in Marcuse’s view, should instead look for resistance from racial minorities and other outcasts who had yet to be integrated into the system.
But by the late 1970s, Piccone, reacting to the failures of the New Left, had broken with Marcuse. He began to argue that the new social movements that Marcuse had perceived as expressions of anti-system negativity had in fact been forms of what Piccone dubbed “artificial negativity” — pseudo-radical protest movements generated by the system itself.
Piccone agreed with Marcuse that by the mid-20th century, capitalism had triumphed over all internal resistance. But he believed that because the system required such resistance in order to periodically restructure itself and avoid stagnation, it had begun to manufacture its own controlled opposition. He interpreted the initial Civil Rights movement, for instance, as a product of the system’s need to “rationalise” the segregated labour market of the South, after which it seamlessly transitioned to promoting black nationalism in an “attempt to artificially reconstitute an otherness which had long since been effectively destroyed”. The allegedly radical protest movement against the Vietnam War had, similarly, merely allowed an evolving US capitalist class to abandon an imperial quagmire that had become obsolete.
Indeed, Piccone grew so pessimistic about the “artificial” nature of Western leftism that he spent much of the rest of his career seeking out extant pockets of, and resources for cultivating, “organic negativity” — his term for social practices and political formations that genuinely stood outside the logic of the system. Some of these he found on the far-Right, in the regionalism of the Italian Lega Nord, the anti-liberal political theory of Carl Schmitt, the paleoconservatism of Paul Gottfried and Samuel Francis, and the right-wing “identitarianism” of Alain de Benoist. Such explorations, or flirtations, were justifiable because, in Piccone’s view, nearly all of what passed for radicalism in the mature societies of the West was pseudo-radicalism that ultimately served capitalist interests.
Although Piccone could be more than a bit conspiratorial, it is not hard to see how his “artificial negativity” thesis could be applied to a great deal of the officially sanctioned cultural radicalism of today, which may help to explain why ideas similar to his are beginning to resurface. One can also point to the experience of leftists during the Trump years who found themselves corralled into an anti-Trump popular front that had them allying with not only centrist Democrats but also Never-Trump Republicans, including many of the architects of the Iraq War.
Bordiga had famously argued against this sort of broad-based “anti-fascism”, which he warned would “breathe life into that great poisonous monster, a great bloc comprising every form of capitalist exploitation, along with all of its beneficiaries”, and this is indeed what happened — socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, initially popular for their opposition to the “corporate” establishment of the Democrats, ultimately fell in line behind the party’s leadership and urged their followers to do the same.
The Trump years also revealed something about the nature of power in the United States that, once seen, is difficult to unsee. For all the warnings that Trump would turn out to be Hitler, he in practice turned out to be more like Berlusconi — a vulgar entertainer with a sordid personal life who in most respects ended up governing like a normal politician.
What happened on the other side of the aisle was more subtle but also, in the long run, more sinister. We saw the national media collaborating with shadowy intelligence agents and researchers to launder a conspiracy theory about Russian collusion and, later, employ the same playbook to block Trump’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. We saw constant media-generated and wealthy NGO-funded campaigns against racism and sexism welded to the electoral priorities of the Democrats. We saw “Critical Race Theory”, a crude ideological rationalisation of the Democrats’ coalitional logic, elevated to the level of quasi-official religion. We saw Twitter suspending The New York Post for publishing embarrassing information about Joe Biden’s son in the run-up to the election and payments processors such as PayPal partnering with progressive NGOs to monitor their customers and report “extremists” to law enforcement.
In short, we saw the consolidation of a near-unified ruling class bloc explicitly aligned with the Democratic Party against the potential disruption of Trump. This development has already created a host of strange new political alliances. If it holds, we should not be surprised if more than a few anti-capitalist radicals begin to reassess who their real enemies are.
(This post first appeared on Unherd, August 21, 2021, https://unherd.com/2021/08/twilight-of-the-american-left/_)