“Narcotic Earnestness” and the Exclusion of Working Class People

by Taryn Fivek on November 15, 2013

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from Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) by Chris Marker

Two articles were published this week that featured similar takes on the emotional side of the socialist equation. Doug Henwood said he found the magazine-publishing left in Brooklyn encouraging because it offers an “intellectual seriousness without a narcotic earnestness”. Owen Jones wrote for the Independent saying that there’s nothing “personal” about socialism. What do they define as narcotic earnestness, as personal? Imagine a civil rights movement told to make racism “not personal”, telling people to settle down and see things logically for a change. Where’s the heart in it?

I suspect this lack of heart comes because of a distance from the idea. It’s no coincidence that people who are not workers, who have sometimes never even been workers, peddle these viewpoints of emotional disconnect and masculine affect. We would laugh off a white male who tries to tell us that feminism or anti-racism aren’t personal issues. A white male clearly has much less at stake in the fight against misogyny and racism than a woman of color. It would be no surprise to us if he could approach the situation without emotion – after all, what has he ever felt in his bones on the matter? So when a member of the privileged classes says that socialism is nothing personal, that narcotic earnestness is something to look down one’s nose at, we should have a similar reaction.

I believe that the reason the “new left” is pushed in the direction of academic dryness, blocked ears and inaction is precisely because those privileged classes, who have quite a different stake in the discussion, are the ones currently steering it. It’s a small, closed circle that is described by the New Statesmen as basically, “the wunderkind socialists of Brooklyn”. Workers are not included in this new left except as statistics and dehumanizing, baseless assumptions. Workers should be at the forefront of overthrowing capitalism, because they are the only ones who can do it. Those on the left who say “the left is dead” are, more often than not, those who benefit most as a class from the death of the left.

This is not to say the privileged classes who can afford to separate themselves so emotionally from socialism should be excluded entirely – far from it. But one should vigorously fight bourgeois ideas masquerading as “socialism” that spring from this source. If you cannot see the fight against capitalism as a fight to save your life, then you will never fight as hard. Without the inclusion of workers who have such a vital stake in overthrowing capitalism, the movement will remain on the pages of a magazine.

I happen to think that if there is such a thing as a “safe space” in this society, there should safe spaces on the left for people who are not bourgeois, people who come from working class backgrounds and people who are poor. I would like to see more workers’ journals, more workers’ panels. I believe that workers should be preferred recipients for writing and journalism grants. Workers are the ones who inevitably organize to accomplish socialism. After all, it is the people who have the most to lose who not only take socialism the most seriously, but also feel it the most personally. And workers know bullshit better than anybody; when you come around dispassionately speaking in a language meant to exclude them from things they care passionately about, they will turn their backs on you. Workers should be at the forefront of socialist ideology to defeat bourgeois ideas. Workers are the subject, not the object, of socialism.

Workers and the experiences of working people are erased daily in discourse on the left. They exist as statistics or as ignorant masses who need to be talked out of their own stupidity and shown “the way” by  wunderkind socialists of Brooklyn who (obviously) know more about capitalism than they do. It’s time to welcome workers into the discussion. They take socialism personally, they feel the blows on their bodies from capitalism daily. Most importantly, they bring the “narcotic earnestness” that pushes people into action.

Looking at what the average American worker consumes, very little of it represents their class interest. It is essential they be included in socialist discussions and organizing because they have the most to gain from socialism and because they can help articulate the heart in the theory.

I think the first step in this inclusion of workers should be for the rich to identify who they are on the left. I suggest a moneybag icon next to bylines of writers whose family wealth is more than $150,000. Doug Henwood, for example, attended Yale and makes his living as a financial advisor, yet is quoted in a story as offering authoritative views on this new left. There is nothing wrong with being born into money or having an advanced degree and speaking about leftism. It’s the “authoritative” part I take issue with. It’s the distance from the risk and reward and suggesting socialism isn’t personal, isn’t really about life or feelings, that poisons things. If one’s ideas aren’t bourgeois, there’s nothing to be afraid of by opening them up to challenge. If one can learn to speak to people simply and concisely, if one can listen well and not speak with condescension, then this is going to help. The art of self-criticism is lost on this generation of “new” leftists; we are terrified of critique or blacklisting ourselves out of academic institutions or publications. We tune out what we don’t want to hear, and hold tighter and more personally to our positions than we do to socialism. If we’re all on the same side, why the defensive posturing, why the lashing out?

There are two meanings of “taking it personally”, and one involves ego. A socialist should be eager to correct their ideological mistakes and take criticism from others. When criticism is painted as “trolling” and dismissed as “hysterical”, this is the ego talking. When the greatest stake you have in the conversation is whether or not you’re correct, then you have little to lose. The New Statesman article admits the socialist revival in Brooklyn seems to exist in the air, not in action, but fails to grasp that the lack of worker involvement, the beating heart of socialism, is why.

(Originally published at manyfesto)

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Zapatero November 15, 2013 at 10:36 pm

There is much food for thought here but the prescription at the end unfortunately falls flat, in my opinion. That is, despite a sincere opening, to suggest the inclusion of money bag icons or other such display near the writer´s names (or academic pedigree) smacks of something … not quite right. I get the part about those who are spoken of as “authoritative” often being interesting (to say the least) selections. But then, who exactly are making the selections?

That the putative leadership of the Left is so often held by people no longer (if they ever were) connected to the poorer, marginalized, or daily working class participants of the Left which, as the author rightly notes, are those with “the most to gain from socialism”, is I think true, true. But the analyses given by Noam Chomsky or Michael Parenti, the late Alexander Cockburn or others, all people whose personal wealth probably exceeds those who would have “the most to gain” are no less spot on because of said wealth. Or consider the writings of Gore Vidal, no theorist for sure, but still someone whose work provided a sometimes invaluable insight into the nature of the ruling class (from which he came) and their allies. I have not given this as much thought as perhaps I should and will weigh it more in the days ahead but I think the answers to this conundrum lie elsewhere.

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Lucette November 16, 2013 at 2:49 am

Engels was part of the ruling class and Marx had a few degrees, right?

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Aleks November 16, 2013 at 3:44 am

Marx was dying of poverty. Doug Henwood owns a brownstone in Brooklyn.

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Jason S. November 16, 2013 at 7:49 pm

What difference does it make what Doug owns? As Lucette was effectively pointing out, Engels owned a friggin’ factory!

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sartesian November 16, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Really. Why not just point out that he supported TARP?

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spectre November 17, 2013 at 2:23 am

Worth noting that one of the elder statesmen of the Brooklyn left, Corey Robin, is happilly destroying the workers education center of Brooklyn College, and this seems to be supported by all the new socialist types, including Henwood. Robin publicly registered his disappointment that Immanuel Ness could not be bribed into supporting him with the promise of more office space.

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