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How Movements Win

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How Movements Win

On May 25, 2020, Derek Chauvin knelt on the back of George Floyd's neck until he died. The murder was recorded by numerous bystanders on cell phones. Protests began within hours in Minneapolis; within days, they had spread across the United States and into other countries. Depending on how you count, the protests would last for twelve months and involve between fifteen million  and twenty-five million American citizens. The goal most closely associated with these protests could be heard chanted at any rally: abolish the police.

It is now not quite four years since the murder of George Floyd. The protests have faded away. The police remain unabolished. Their record of brutality and murder appears to have been little affected; if anything, the main long-term result has been a large-scale work slowdown on the part of police, leading to increased violence and murder in the communities they purportedly protect.

The George Floyd protests are not the only high-profile failure of a high-profile mass movement in recent years. Occupy Wall Street energized people across the country to overthrow the dominance of the 1%; more than a decade later there is little material change to show for it. Tahrir Square put millions in the streets and threw out Mubarak; fewer than three years later Mubarak's carbon-copy successor Sisi was again entrenched in power.

All of these movements were in practice "horizontalist," lacking leaders, organization, discipline, hierarchy. In his If We Burn, Vincent Bevins blames their failures on this fact (reviewed and discussed in these pages here). In Bevins' telling, the lack of defined leaders and organizations allowed these movements to be co-opted by better-organized and more hierarchical right-wing organizations; in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood and shortly thereafter the military. In America these movements were not so much co-opted as outlasted—police and police unions, notably, were able to simply weather the storm of George Floyd and outlast any pressure for change.

This suggests an answer to the problem: "organize like they organize."  If the right wing has disciplined and hierarchical organizations, we simply need to have our own, capable of beating them over the long haul. "Articulate our goals, organize our members, impose costs on the powerful until they accept our demands."  And here is the first core claim of this essay: this won't work. Modern liberal democracies—with free speech, reasonable prosperity, relatively non-corrupt government, and ubiquitous social media—make it easier than ever for anyone to participate in politics. Paradoxically, it is this very freedom that makes it harder than ever to create disciplined political organizations.

As Mancur Olson notes, hierarchical organizations can only function when they can selectively provide rewards or punishments to their members based on compliance with the organization's goals. But this is hard to do in a modern liberal democracy!  The river of money pouring through crowdfunding sites like ActBlue has created a source of funding that parties can't control, access to party organs like publications and printing presses means little when anyone can talk to everyone for the low cost of free, and if I want to leave your reading group and form my own, it's not like you can stop me—it's a free country, after all. Witness the near-total inability of the Democratic Party to bring wayward senators like Joe Manchin or Krysten Sinema in line: there is simply nothing the party could plausibly threaten them with. The same is true of nearly any political organization today.

But wait. Didn't I just say that police effectively organized a disciplined collective response to the George Floyd protests?  They did—but they were able to do this because police are a union, and unions have unusual features that enable them to act like disciplined political organizations. Closed shop unions can selectively distribute benefits to their members, whether that's employment or legal representation. However, the structure of unions inherently limits the scope and goals of such organizations. The inherent limitations of their membership allows them to exert a great deal of pressure over their employer on specific subjects, while also tending to limit their political goals to the specific conditions of their company or industry. Thus, while unions remain a core part of progressive movements, they are unlikely to form a general model for organizing and action.

The inside/outside strategy

Hence the dilemma: if neither horizontalism nor hierarchy works, what are we left with?  The dilemma is not insoluble. Recent times are not just a record of failed movements. Rather, our age has included some tremendous successes in progressive organizing. Consider the LGBTQ rights movement. Even in my own childhood, "gay" was a ubiquitous slur. Gay marriage was illegal. AIDS was a death sentence. Today, despite vicious Republican attacks on my community, queer rights are a fact of life, enshrined in law and popular opinion. Whatever the queer rights movement did, it worked. There are lessons to be learned.

The overall strategy was best theorized by ACT/UP. They called it the "inside / outside strategy."  The movement had two components. The first was the outside component. This was protest, die-ins, the AIDS quilt—dramatic public acts that worked to raise awareness of the issue and create a sense of urgency—that something must be done. The inside strategy was more boring. It was the people who would show up at city hall at 3pm on a Wednesday to explain the specific policy changes they wanted to regional hospital management.  Presentations to the FDA explaining the ethical calculus behind allowing AIDS patients to access experimental medicines. White papers and pocket protectors, speaking the language of policy and evidence. "Something must be done?  Here is something you can do."

It is worth emphasizing here that even the outside component of this strategy was fundamentally based on persuasion. The queer rights movement did not "extract concessions" from a hostile straight elite. There are, to be blunt, not very many of us, and we are often poor and marginalized. We do not have some mass base that could bring society to a halt; indeed society spent a century grinding us down without really being too bothered about it. If we threw every one of our bodies onto the gears of an uncaring society, all we'd achieve would be some bloodstained gears and a society that kept on churning without us. Rather, the various colorful protests—and every individual act of being out and proud—served to persuade straight society that we were neither a threat nor a danger, but simply ordinary people like everyone else, looking to live our lives freely and with dignity.

And this all worked despite the fact that there was no one running the place. Yes, there are a few high-profile LGBTQ organizations such as Human Rights Watch, but they are not exactly a disciplined party that organizes and directs The Queers everywhere. Rather, the LGBTQ rights movement has since Stonewall been a chaotic mess of different factions, groups, and ideas. Discipline and hierarchy were not necessary.

The fact that a movement shaped like this succeeded is not an accident. Rather, it worked because it synergized with certain core features of modern liberal democracies. Under conditions of liberalism, strategies of extraction and coercion are difficult to implement. The state is very, very durable, and it will outlast you. The state is not composed of a brittle, exclusionary minority, ready to shatter at one blow from the disenfranchised many. Material conditions are pretty good and few people want to die for the revolution. There is a great diversity of people, identities, and opinions, not some waiting-to-be-woken-to-action 99% of homogenous thought and feeling. Fundamentally, the LGBTQ rights movement succeeded because our pitch was pretty good, and it convinced most people. The success of our movement can't be disentangled from the fact that in fact we are not rapists, perverts, and pedophiles, and that what we wanted was simply the same rights as everyone else.

Police abolition is a weak inside strategy

Now for an unpleasant assertion: this is why the George Floyd protests failed. Their cause was righteous. Their outside component was extremely strong. Their inside component was not. In the heat of the moment, in the face of a roaring crowd, they convinced a supermajority of the Minneapolis City Council to commit to abolishing the police. But once that moment had passed, once they were no longer standing at the head of a roaring crowd but sitting in some fluorescent-lit conference room, they could not persuade the council to go beyond empty slogans and actually abolish the police. The outside component was as potent as anything we've seen in decades. But the inside component could not get the movement over the finish line.

What police abolition failed to marshal was the kind of evidence that could convince the very boring ordinary elected officials on a city council to pull the trigger and abolish their police departments. They could provide stories and dreams and hopes, but little in the way of evidence that abolishing the police would lead to those dreams and not directly to vigilante killings, as it very much did at CHAZ/CHOP, and as it very much has in most other modern states that have, for one reason or another, lacked a functioning police force. The inability—and unwillingness—of police abolitionists to answer very basic questions about murder and rape, to move immediately to whataboutism did not serve them well when it came time to actually wield power.

Another unpleasant assertion. The George Floyd protests failed not because of events on the streets of Minneapolis, but in the halls of the ivory tower decades earlier. Ideas are not distilled from the air. In many cases, they are developed over decades by intellectuals and academics laboring in obscurity. The idea of abolishing the police was not invented on the streets of Minneapolis in 2021. The theory of police abolition was developed over decades by intellectuals and academics such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariam Kaba, and others. These authors have done the world a profound service in making plain the abuses and failures of the American police-prison system. But they also gave us a program for change that proved unsatisfactory when it came time to enact it.

Ideas are not simply determined by material conditions. Police abolition is hardly the only solution to the problem of police brutality that has ever been proposed. There are always choices to be made, theories to be weighed, ideas that win out and ideas that lose. To return to the example of the queer rights movement, the push for marriage equality was not foreordained; there were thinkers in the movement who wanted to push for marriage abolition—notably, Michael Warner, but others as well—but these ideas lost in favor of ideas about normality and equality.

Building a good inside strategy

Hence the second core claim of this essay: if you want to win, you need to have a good inside strategy, and you need to develop it ahead of time. If you want to be ready to seize the moment when it comes—if you want to not waste a crisis—then you have to have a strong inside component ready to go when that crisis arrives. The question therefore is: what makes for a good inside strategy?  And what makes for a bad one?  The answer is simple, if not easy. Functional inside strategies are grounded in reality. Non-functional ones are oriented around maintaining in-group cohesion. Two examples illustrate the point.

Police abolition succeeded in capturing the imagination of leftist intellectuals not because it was sound policy based in evidence, but because it served wonderfully well to maintain in-group cohesion. Embracing the most radical position was a way to keep oneself in good odor with the rest of the crowd—and no one wanted to be a filthy liberal who hadn't gotten on board with the radical cause du jour. Thus, questions about empirical matters—like how best to reduce police brutality and corruption—were transformed into questions of group standing and moral character. If you weren't on board with the most radical proposal, then obviously you were in favor of police brutality and the system exactly as it exists.

Another way of maintaining social cohesion while retreating from reality is simply to equivocate on core terms and slogans. "Abolish the police" itself has gone through this process rather dramatically since 2021, with the slogan undergoing a complete trifurcation of meaning. When the moment came to actually seize power, police abolition had to finally directly confront the question "what do we do about the rapists and the murderers; what happens when a guy with a gun just goes house to house raping women."  The hard-core police abolitionists will advise you to lie back and think of the revolution. This answer is unsatisfying to most, including most police abolitionists. The more liberal among them simply redefine abolishing the police—witness, for instance, the bizarre case of San Francisco City Supervisor Hilary Ronen claiming that she is all for abolishing the police, before immediately explaining that she just means funding social services more. The more radical instead will be quite explicit: "after we abolish the police, me and my friends with guns will simply run lynch mobs enact communal justice."  By ignoring the material contradictions between these three very different policies, by hiding that disagreement under the single now-multivocal phrase "abolish the police," in-group cohesion is maintained—but only by retreating from practical politics, retreating from any situation where the material contradictions would rapidly come to the fore.

These are examples of inside strategies that serve only to maintain group cohesion instead of confronting reality and standing ready to use power. Reality means being explicit about the intended policies and providing empirical evidence to suggest that they would in fact achieve your intended goals and change things for the better. In a functional movement, the ideas that win out do so at least in part because they are based in reality, and the ideas that lose out do so at least in part because they are not.

This sounds very much like I am proposing a vacuous and individualistic solution for a systemic problem. "Just choose truth!  Don't give in to group dynamics!  Kill the populist in your heart!"  It's therefore worth dwelling on the example of, of all things, modern science. "Science" is not some transhistorical force of nature. Science as we understand it is an idea and an institution that was developed relatively recently. Crucially, it is a self-organizing institution, one not imposed from above by some governmental authority but created by associational group dynamics that crossed the lines of existing institutions and even national borders and all too often stood opposed to existing organizations. It is not an institution that lacks group dynamics—as a former academic, I can promise you that. The great achievement of modern science was coupling group prestige and esteem with success at measuring and understanding the natural world—not perfectly or invariably by any means, but the achievements of science since 1543 speak for themselves. This was a choice by scientists to esteem not those who parroted the words of the dead masters but those who grappled with the world. Likewise, it is a choice on our part to esteem those who provide real solutions and grapple with the difficulties of reality rather than those who stroke our egos, our fantasies of righteousness and power, fantasies in which there are but a few villains oppressing the righteous many, and if we could but identify and punish those villains, utopia would ensue. This is satisfying in a story, but not based in the reality of contemporary America.

In the end, there's no one here but us, no outside force that could discipline and structure our political activities. Society has no outside, and we are condemned to self-governance. If we do it well, it will be because we choose to do it well.

I want to close with some reflections on another ongoing progressive movement, the Yes In My Back Yard movement. Like most contemporary movements, YIMBY is functionally leaderless, undisciplined, and nonhierarchical. Like most contemporary progressive movements, it is reliant on the scribbles of obscure academics from decades back. Unlike many contemporary movements, YIMBY has little to nothing in the way of the traditional trappings of a mass protest movement. You might say we have been insidemaxing. But YIMBY has its own outside component—for instance, the increasingly common practice of simply attending city planning meetings and recording what actually said by the people blocking new housing is, in its way, just a way of raising awareness of the problem. But more bluntly, we were not able to manufacture our own moment. The ever-increasing scale and scope of the housing crisis did that for us. More and more people started to say something must be done. When that happened, we were standing ready with a playbook of proposals and studies to show that this is something that can be done—this is something that you, specifically, councilwoman can do right here and now, and that it will almost certainly make things better for everyone. It turns out that ideas matter. It turns out that having a good inside strategy—works.

The application of these ideas to other contemporary movements is left as an exercise for the reader.

Featured image is City Council Hearing on Opioid Crisis 3-12-2018, by Jared Piper

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12 days ago
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Why Movements Fail

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Why Movements Fail

Vincent Bevins' If We Burn asks a simple question: why did the mass protest movements of 2010-2020 largely fail to achieve their objectives?  Bevins is not referring to American protest movements—not the Women's March, not Black Lives Matter nor George Floyd, but rather to other protest movements around the world: the Arab Spring, the Hong Kong 2019 protests, Turkey's Gezi Park protests, the 2013 Brazil protests, Euromaidan, and still more besides. These protests mobilized and energized millions of people in each country to take to the streets and demand a better world. What they got instead was counterrevolution—Sisi, Bolsonaro, Poroshenko, the iron fist of the Communist Party closing down ever harder. Bevins' mournful book is an attempt to understand how this happened—and how we can do better next time.

Let's start with some of the basics of the major episodes. Going through the details of each would be impossible here; instead, consider Egypt and Brazil as paradigms.

In January 2011, these protests began as a reaction against the police brutality of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak's regime. But riding the wave of the Arab Spring they quickly exploded in size, and demonstrators occupied Tahrir Square, a central square in Cairo. After weeks of conflict with the security forces, Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February, and the military agreed to an election. In June 2012, the liberal factions split the vote and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president (94). After Morsi attempted to ram through an Islamist constitution, a second wave of protests broke out in June 2013. In July, Morsi was deposed by his own minister of defense, Fattah el-Sisi, who would go on to establish himself as military dictator in the Mubarak mold.

An eerily parallel series of events would play out in Brazil almost immediately afterwards. On June 6th, 2013, the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) began a series of actions intended to prevent a 20-cent rise in the municipal bus fare in São Paulo (116). To their surprise and delight, this kicked off a broad-ranging national protest movement which would pull millions of people across the country onto the streets and, by June 17, storm the halls of Brazil's parliament (132). The government would accede to MPL's demands on June 19 (136). But the protests would not stop. Left-wing President Dilma Roussef's popularity would crater, going from 57% prior to the protests to 30% afterwards (147). Her popularity would never recover, and she would be impeached in 2016, paving the way for the election of far-right radical Jair Bolsonaro in 2019.

Bevins extracts from these and a dizzying array of other worldwide protest movements a surprisingly common repertoire of contention:

  • Occupying central squares of symbolic importance
  • Staged or natural symbolic moments for media consumption and reproduction
  • Fighting with the police
  • Property damage
  • Blocking of roads and highways

Now reader this may all seem perfectly natural to you—"what else could a protest consist of?"  But that is just a reflection of how embedded this specific repertoire is in our culture. Consider what it does not include:

  • Targeted assassination
  • Armed occupation of government buildings
  • Mass murder
  • Strikes
  • Boycotts
  • Writing letters
  • Seizing the means of production

You'll instantly recognize that these tactics are more closely associated with other traditions of political action—whether that's right-wing, liberal, or classically Marxist—which should just highlight more clearly that the mass protests Bevins analyzes shared a distinctive repertoire of contention and were drawing on a distinctive theory of politics more broadly. So what was that theory?

Bevins calls it "horizontalism." The term comes from Argentina's 2001 protests (43), but the idea goes back much further—Bevins traces it to the New Left of 1968 (17). This movement—animated by the questions of civil rights and the war in Vietnam—was equally a reaction against prior leftist organizations. These organizations were "Leninist" in that they endorsed "democratic centralism"—the idea that the central party's views would be decided democratically, but once decided would be enforced hierarchically. In practice of course there was precious little democracy to be found in the Communist Parties of those years. The New Left saw these organizations as themselves autocracies in miniature, hierarchically organized, captured by the Soviet Union, and not different in kind from the other authoritarianisms they opposed. Hence: horizontalism. No leaders, no hierarchy. Each person individually free to assent or not, group decisions only made unanimously (and therefore typically after hours and hours of discussion). Horizontalists can have organizations—they just tend to be extremely small. Only a dedicated group of close friends and comrades can make every decision by consensus (25, 201-202). It's worth quoting influential theorist Marina Sitrin at some length here.

These movements emerged in response to a growing crisis, the heart of which is a lack of democracy. People do not feel represented by the governments that claim to speak in their name. The Occupy movements are not based on creating either a program or a political party that will put forward a plan for others to follow. Their purpose is not to determine “the” path that a particular country should take but to create the space for a conversation in which all can participate and in which all can determine together what the future should look like. At the same time, these movements are attempting to prefigure that future society in their present social relationships.

But horizontalism is at most a principle of organizing; a repertoire of contention is a set of tactics. What of goals—what of strategy?  What theory of change ties together these components?  There's one model lurking nearby that seems like it might be an answer: "we impose costs on the regime until they give us what we want."  Call it coercive or extractive or concessionary or adversarial, the basic idea is simple enough. The trouble is that a horizontal leaderless organization would of necessity struggle to coordinate the kind of action necessary for this theory—and in practice very much did struggle to control the protests they unleashed. Only a disciplined, hierarchical organization has the capacity to turn protests on and off as a result of policy negotiations. This particular problem was on vivid display in several of these protest movements

Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) initially launched a highly targeted campaign with a well-defined goal (to stop a proposed fare increase for São Paulo's public transit); similarly Euromaidan began with a small protest against President Viktor Yanukovych blocking the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement. Both of these small groups touched off immensely larger protests, which they were totally unable to control.

But there's a deeper point here. These groups were not even interested in negotiating or accepting concession to their demands. To quote Sitrin again: "The fact that the movements do not have the conquest of the state as their goal does not mean they do not want countless things changed."  In Brazil, even when city officials invited Movimento Passe Livre to negotiate with them over the state of public transit, they refused—and this points to the deeper issue (119).

None of these large-scale movements were interested in negotiations or concessions. The truth is that these protest movements were largely not operating with that theory of change. Rather, Bevins argues that they were operating with a teleological theory of change. Whether Whiggish or Marxist or Fukuyamist, teleological theories of history hold that history has a natural direction to it—and that that direction is a good one. As Bevins evocatively puts it, "Many people in my generation [] thought that if you simply gave the thing [history] a kick, it would come unstuck and move in the right direction" (259). This explains the oddly unspecified and open-ended nature of the repertoire of contention discussed above. Bevins' summary (258) is pithy:

1: Protests and crackdowns lead to favorable media (social and traditional) coverage
2: Media coverage leads more people to protest
3: Repeat, until almost everyone is protesting
4: ???
5: A better society

The idea was simply that these tactics will create disruption and more importantly create spectacle, the spectacle would create more protest and more disruption, and then the implacable structural forces of history would take over—no need for any Leninist vanguard party—and move society forward.

Bevins astutely notes the importance of modern media, social and otherwise, in this conception. Before photography, before newspapers, the idea that you could change a national government by having a big gathering in one city square would have seemed nonsensical. It is only in the capacity of these gatherings to be seen by millions around the country that they could possibly have the power supposed.

The funny thing is, this worked—sort of. These mass protests did unstick history, at least for a little while. The trouble is that history did not then automatically lurch into utopia. Rather, right-wing forces seized these moments and seized power—Sisi in Egypt, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine, Xi in Hong Kong. This is the fundamental horror that Bevins confronts—how did the Arab Spring go sour?  How did this moment of tremendous hope and liberation and real power lead to—more of the same old men in charge of everything?

Bevins has an idea. As both Mayaro Vivian (a leader in MPL) and Fernando Haddad (the once-mayor of São Paulo) both said to Bevins, "there is no such thing as a political vacuum" (263). Organized, violent right-wing forces—comfortable with hierarchy and violence—were willing and able to seize power. Meanwhile left-wing movements and leaders, consumed by horizontalist ideology, were unwilling to take power even when it was offered to them. The tactic of protest—>spectacle—>protest succeeded at mobilizing mass numbers of people, and it succeeded at creating the space for change. But it did not succeed at grasping the moment it had created. In one bizarre but illustrative example, the Brazilian protests became defined by the "Five Cause," issued by the hacker collective Anonymous (139). Except the "hacker collective" in question was just a guy who bought a Guy Fawkes mask, and the causes were just a grab-bag of different ideas he'd found on Facebook (146). Bevins quotes Marx's famous aphorism: "Those who cannot represent themselves will be represented" (143). Meaning can and will be imposed on mass protests no matter how chaotic and contradictory and leaderless they are.

So what is to be done?  Here Bevins begins to run out of steam. He gestures vaguely towards revolutions that change the "real structure" of society. He waves his hands at "Leninist" organizing, an embrace of hierarchical organizations. But there's a problem with this. The decline of hierarchical associations is not some problem specific to the left, but rather an endemic feature of modern society. As Mancur Olson notes in his The Logic of Collective Action, organizations can only be hierarchical at all when they can selectively distribute some benefit (or punishment) to their members based on compliance with that hierarchy. (This is why, for instance, so many political parties have been tightly linked with political graft and patronage systems at one point or another.) Of course, this reward does not always need to be monetary—access to party organs like newspapers or printing presses was once central to nascent political organizations. Here again we see the central importance of social media to the modern political landscape: the barriers to entry for political "competition" have never been lower. Anyone can talk to everyone for the low cost of a free social media account.

We can see this exact dynamic at work in the stunning weakness of American political parties qua hierarchical organizations. Witness the Democratic Party's near-total inability to enforce ideological conformity on its own members—or the Republican Party establishment's total inability to stop the Trump takeover in 2015 (indeed, his takeover was so complete it's easy to forget that Jeb was their man).

It doesn't matter whether Lenin-style "democratic centralism" is desirable or undesirable: it is impossible. Try to enforce ideological conformity on dissenting members of your organization and they'll just go form their own new one. It's not like you can stop them.

So is horizontalism simply an inevitable result of structural forces? I think not. There's something deeper here, something that can easily go missing in these dry political-economic analyses of protest movements, yet which is nevertheless central to understanding them. Bevins brings it up repeatedly: the experience of protest. The experience of protest is easy to overlook or ignore or subsume to some other more familiar mode of human experience. But consider the language Bevins repeatedly turns to to describe it:

"It felt like something had shifted in the nature of time itself. They had cracked open the structure of reality. ... Everything was possible."  (66)
"an escape from the alienation of everyday life" (113)
"deep, unmediated connection with another human being" (112)
"[She became] part of this giant, euphoric ball of people growing and pulsating and reshaping reality. Part of History." (249)

Protest is an ecstatic experience, in the properly religious sense: a bolt from the heavens that cleaves you from the shackles of mundanity and lets you see past what law and custom and power make "impossible" and touch the truth of a better world. In Fouche's evocative phrase, these ecstatic experiences allow you to "[hear] the Lord of Hosts marching through history and, in the footfalls of almighty God, [hear] that what was truly impossible has become intrinsically, if not readily, possible. What was available only in hypothetical rawness has become a real possibility that can be seized." The truth we moderns have forgotten is that ecstatic experience—religious experience—is a rare but very important mode of human consciousness.

But. This ecstatic experience is kind of like the blazing sword from a fairytale: powerful and essential, but dangerous to the soul. Power pretends to inevitability; ecstatic experience shatters the lie—and much of that power, in the process. But you can get addicted to the feeling, you can protest for protest's sake, without any further end. As one MPL activist would admit to Bevins, "the fight was the point," not the policy change it produced (286).

This underlies the allure of horizontalism. Horizontalism promises power without accountability, revolution without compromise. Give History a kick and it'll take care of the rest. "I'm not doing anything, it's the impersonal forces of history/the nation/class struggle." You can focus on that feeling you had out on the streets, everyone living and breathing and moving as one joyous whole—without ever having to have the moral courage to articulate what that better world would actually look like or how we might get there. Don't worry about the brutal comedown when the millennium once again fails to arrive, don't think about how reality will never match up to the dream because that's not a thing reality can do.

Horizontalism is not the solution to our problems. Horizontalism is a trap. And I want to emphasize rather strongly that this is not some academic point. As an unnamed Egyptian revolutionary puts it: "In New York or Paris, if you do a horizontal, leaderless, and post-ideological uprising, and it doesn't work out, you just get a media or academic career afterward. Out here in the real world, if a revolution fails, all your friends go to jail or end up dead" (270). We are therefore confronted with a critical problem: without either teleology or hierarchy to support progressive political movements, what can?  A real answer to that question is beyond the scope of this essay. But I want to at least gesture towards one.

Bevins' scope prevents him from reflecting on Volodomyr Zelenskyy's election in Ukraine in 2019 and the country's decisive turn towards the West. In the long run, that small group of elites and intellectuals shivering in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti got precisely what they wanted—and they got it by persuading a large majority of the nation to agree with them. The man who sparked it all off, Mustafa Nayyem, is now the chief of the State Agency for Restoration and Infrastructure Development. Show up and be ready to rule. Show up with a pitch that persuades. Show up with a dream—but show up with an answer too.

Featured image is You are glorious. Euromaidan 2014 in Kyiv, by Ввласенко

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80 days ago
New York, NY
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Samuel Moyn on the Abandonment of Revolutionary Liberalism

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Samuel Moyn on the Abandonment of Revolutionary Liberalism

As Alan Ryan reminds us in his gigantic The Making of Modern Liberalism it is in many ways more sensible to talk about a family of liberalisms than to suggest there is one, singular liberal doctrine which is the same everywhere and always. Liberalism in theory and in practice have endorsed capitalism and socialism, been pessimists and optimists, hawks and pacifists, and everything in between. For those of us who identify as liberals, many liberals of other formulations will seem deeply unattractive—a bit like that family member you have to spend time with at reunions even though you wonder how you can possibly be related.

I felt this way a lot while reading Samuel Moyn’s excellent new book Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times. Moyn has been a sagacious figure in American letters since the publication of his pioneering The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. This early book argued that, contrary to the triumphalist discourse of rights so ubiquitous throughout the 1990s and 2000s, in fact the political emphasis on universal rights was very modern and in many ways constituted a cautious withdrawal from the more ambitious dreams of liberals and socialists past. This theme resurfaced in Moyn’s spiritual sequel Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World. Here Moyn stressed how rights became popular as a way of framing a very minimal standard of obligations states and international organizations assumed towards their citizens (and others). This was a retreat from the ambitions of earlier radicals who led the charge in demanding ever higher standards of equality, dignity, and freedom for all. In Humane Moyn makes a similar set of charges, but along different lines: chastising proponents of international humanitarian law for trying to humanize war while giving up on the aspiration for peace. Indeed, some neoconservatives and liberal hawks even appealed to the notion of a humane war to license a never ending series of military interventions and adventurism.

I’ve been an admirer of Moyn’s work ever since I read The Last Utopia while completing my graduate work in international human rights law. His frustrating counter-histories deflated our comforting hagiographies; but in doing so they opened up entirely new ways of seeing the history of the 20th century. Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times is his crowning achievement so far. It is distinct in Moyn’s oeuvre for providing the clearest ideological explanation for all the retreats and concessions traced in his other books: that liberalism traded its once radical soul for victory in the Cold War. It did so by internalizing a host of conservative ideas that reduced liberalism’s world historical ambition to secure liberty, equality, and fraternity for all to a thin shell of what it once was. It’s a startling thesis, and only a historian and scholar as principled and original as Moyn could make it convincingly.

The history of Cold War liberalism

Many of liberalism’s central features before the Cold War came—above all its perfectionism and its progressivism—are worth a second look. Perfectionists offer a controversial public commitment to the highest life. As opposed to thinking of liberalism as neutral among competing faiths, before the Cold War many liberals counseled creative and empowered free action as the highest prize for individuals, groups, and humanity. Progressivism, meanwhile, casts history as a forum of opportunity for the achievement and exercise of that ability to act creatively in the world. (The intellectual sin that the Cold War liberal Karl Popper dubbed “historicism,” which treats history as if it obeyed lawlike processes, is a version of progressivism—but a deviant one.) Equally important, across the nineteenth century, liberals were forced to accept the coming of democratic self-government and understood that liberalism’s practical associations with market freedom required a complete overhaul. Before Cold War liberalism, efforts to grapple with those challenges eventually helped make universal suffrage credible, and the mid-twentieth century welfare state conceivable. Cold War liberals changed all that. -Samuel Moyn, Liberalism Against Itself

Moyn reminds us that liberalism entered the world as a revolutionary fighting creed—one that was deeply flawed, snobbish in its protagonists, and often selective in the application of its principles. Nevertheless from Locke onwards liberals were committed to overthrowing the ancien régimes of Europe, advancing arguments that—contra the claims of conservatives from Robert Filmer to Edmund Burke—all people were morally equal and entitled to be treated as such by their governments. This was an explosive position, and understood to be so, with Burke lamenting how the “new conquering empire of light and reason” was advancing everywhere and destroying “all the pleasing illusions” that made subordination easier.

Not just an empty revolutionary credo, liberalism inspired genuine revolutions in the United States, France, and Haiti before sweeping Europe in the 19th century. And for many liberals this was just the beginning; Thomas Paine’s dictum that we had it in our power to make the world anew and better was taken as a sign of hope rather than reservation. Figures like the early Hegel and J.S. Mill hypothesized that new projects of empowerment and emancipation would follow the successful experiments of the past, with Mill even presenting the first fully fledged account of liberal socialism.

How things change. Moyn points out that many liberals were both hostile to, and even embarrassed by socialism when it emerged as a rival for political support in the mid-19th century. This was in no small part because, while liberals had long experience confronting conservatives, they were less prepared to deal with another modernist doctrine which promised to carry on the Enlightenment spirit of liberalism but take it to its more radical conclusions. With the defeat of the far right in the Second World War, liberals confronted both authoritarian and democratic socialist movements which claimed to be more consistent partisans of progress than liberalism itself. At the level of practical politics, the early to mid-century was a time of great experimentation and hope for many liberal politicians. Pushed leftwards by the popularity of socialism, iconic figures like Franklin Roosevelt, William Beveridge, and Willy Brandt spearheaded the creation of extensive welfare states across many developed states. Welfarism sought to combine support for liberal political institutions with a fairer redistribution of economic goods. They were in many ways imperfect, but as Moyn reminds us they came closer than most any other alternative to realizing the more ambitious liberal (and for that matter socialist) dream of social order characterized by freedom and equality for all.

Ironically a very different attitude prevailed amongst the leading liberal intellectuals and philosophers, who responded to the Cold War with great pessimism and even fear. Surveying the tyranny wrought by authoritarian utopianism, for many Cold War liberals the root of the problem lay in such quintessentially Enlightenment convictions as the belief in unending progress. For them, limitless faith in progress achievable by the state was a tool used to disastrous effect by Bolsheviks and fascists. Consequently, faith in progress had to give way to resignation in the face of immutable imperfection.

Much of Moyn’s book is a chronicle of these transitions in the thought and writings of Cold War liberals like Isaiah Berlin and Judith Sklar, along with fellow travelers like Hannah Arendt. Horrified by the rise of Nazi and Stalinist authoritarianism, Cold War liberals largely came to embrace the pessimistic view of human nature and ordinary people that had once been the purview of conservatism in its own epic battle with liberal optimism. Many of the authors Moyn discusses experienced a pronounced sense of disenchantment with the world, though some never grew comfortable settling into their role as skeptics and moderates.

Moyn points out how Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated “Two Concepts of Liberty” came to be taken as a seminal work of Cold War liberalism. In his essay Berlin distinguishes between negative and positive liberty, and argues that while each has its place any attempt to secure positive liberty for all is inherently dangerous. The safer bet was to rest content with securing negative liberty for all. While Berlin sometimes acknowledged that the safer bet wasn’t necessarily the smarter or just one, the anxious bifurcation he drew was sufficiently powerful to bulldoze through his personal ambivalences and provide enduring ammunition for those who believed the liberal state should be as minimal as possible.

Less admirable was Karl Popper, whose gigantic The Open Society and Its Enemies became the Bible of those opposed to notions of historical progress. Popper was of course a tremendous philosopher of science, and thought he’d detected in figures from Plato to Hegel and Marx a resolutely anti-scientific attitude which ended in calls for a closed society modeled on a utopian ideal. Hegel and Marx were especially dangerous for putting forward pseudo-scientific theories of history which implied that the arc of the moral universe was long, but it would bend inexorably towards utopian emancipation. Moyn acknowledges how Popper was right to criticize the more vulgar followers of Hegel and Marx, who could put forward teleological views of their philosophers of history. But he chastises the sparsity of Popper’s knowledge of either thinker, pointing out that “the second volume of The Open Society, on Hegel and Marx, relied on the spottiest possible knowledge of their works.” A deeper knowledge would have revealed how little either Hegel or Marx in their mature works resembled the vulgar historicists Popper painted them as. Popper’s caricatures of Hegel and Marx inhibited thoughtful liberals from drawing profitably on their insights. More importantly Moyn points out how Popper’s relentless attacks on historicism eventually led liberals to abandon more down to earth hopes in human progress.

Another liberalism?

One of the most striking paradoxes in Moyn’s story is how Cold War liberalism became intellectually hegemonic at the very moment when liberal politicians and activists, often cooperating with and learning from democratic socialists, were building the very welfare states that constituted the most ambitious attempt yet to achieve freedom and equality for all. In Moyn’s telling this left the welfare state with shockingly thin intellectual defenses when conservatives like Thatcher and Reagan attacked it, often deploying very similar arguments to those the Cold War liberals themselves had advanced. The result was that liberalism’s crowning achievement was halted, and in some places even rolled back, with minimal outcry or even the tacit support of the very figures who should have rushed to its defense.

This is where I think Moyn’s story needs to be complemented with the flip side of the coin. The specter haunting Liberalism Against Itself, and I’d argue much of his work as a whole, is the specter of liberal egalitarianism. This liberal tradition, going back to Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and J.S. Mill embodies precisely the ambitious progressive spirit and intellectual rigor that Moyn thinks was essential to liberalism in its vital years and which it lost through its mutation into Cold War liberalism. But this isn’t entirely accurate. With the publication of Rawls’s Theory of Justice in 1971, liberal egalitarianism blossomed intellectually even as the prospects of realizing its ambitions in practice wilted. What’s more, Moyn is well aware of this fact, even if he acknowledges the points begrudgingly:

The more venturesome liberals of the 1960s understood that the Cold War competition required not just stigmatizing despotism abroad, but providing fairness at home. John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, published in 1971, is a fruit of this impulse. For all its powerful and telling incorporation of Cold War liberalism (notably what Rawls called the priority of liberty over other ends), the book was most remarkable in its defense of some modicum of distributional egalitarianism. But the greatest historical irony of Rawls’ innovative liberalism compounded that of Cold War liberalism itself. Redressing the earlier mismatch between the libertarianism of Cold War thought and the emergence of the welfare state, A Theory of Justice was only a prelude to a new mismatch, in which egalitarian justice was defended in principle while neoliberal inequality ascended in practice.

The question then becomes how this mismatch occurred. Why did liberal egalitarianism reach new levels of sophistication, depth and egalitarian ambition in the acclaimed writings of Rawls, Sen, Dworkin, Nussbaum, Mills, Benhabib, Anderson and others and yet fail so dismally to establish itself in politics? And here I think the method of intellectual genealogy provided by Moyn runs into its explanatory limitations and must be complemented by many of the very authors he encourages us to explore. Namely Hegel and Marx. From a purely ideational standpoint liberal egalitarianism remains an extraordinarily attractive ideal; especially in its liberal socialist forms. But offering strong historical and normative arguments for liberal egalitarianism needs to be aligned with a cold awareness of how power and domination operates within modern capitalism. Sometimes the operation of power and domination assume subtle forms by instantiating ideological and cognitive barriers to conceiving new forms of social life, as Tony Smith stresses in his excellent Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism. But sometimes it is far more overt. Social scientists such as Martin Gilens and Thomas Piketty have stressed how there is broad and even majority support for various egalitarian policies. But these have little likelihood of being implemented in a political context where gratifying the interests of the rich quantifiably matter so much more to lawmakers.

Moyn’s book ends with some of his most thoughtful ruminations. He observes how liberalism has retreated across much of the world as its Cold War mutation came to be distrusted, despaired and, and eventually despised. Rather than provoking reflection of what led to this point, many Cold War liberals doubled down on their doctrine by insisting that sooner or later things must go back to the status quo, ergo obviating any need to once more creatively reinvent liberalism through recommitting ourselves to its most inspiring principles. Moyn ends his book with the imperative that “the task for liberals in our time is to imagine a form of liberalism that is altogether original. If they don’t it does not seem likely that they will see their creed survive—and anyway survival is not good enough.” He is absolutely right. The most destructive influence of Cold War liberalism is precisely convincing liberals that survival was good enough—never mind inequality, plutocratic rule, environmental decay and so much more. But the hope inspiring liberal egalitarianism would be good enough. It is worthy not only of survival, but loyalty, and that is far more than Cold War liberalism can say for itself.

Featured Image is The Burning of the Throne of Louis Philippe, by Hermann Raunheim

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Western Liberals Need to Extend the Same Humanity to Gaza as they Did to Ukraine

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Western Liberals Need to Extend the Same Humanity to Gaza as they Did to Ukraine

Although it came after months of warnings by US intelligence agencies and even President Biden, the Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked many who assumed that such an event was not possible on the borders of the EU. Ukrainian flags popped up around the world—projected onto buildings, sprouting from homes and lawns, and flown atop landmarks around the world. After the West got its footing, plans were drawn up first to give Ukrainians what they needed to protect Kyiv and then to help Ukraine liberate its territory—a goal which at the time enjoyed bipartisan support in the United States, with only a few extremes on the left and right seriously questioning Ukrainians’ right to self-determination. Images of executed bodies in Bucha and destroyed cities like Mariupol only strengthened this resolve. President Zelenksyy became an overnight household name and his speeches were broadcast around the world. The US, Western Europe, and much of the rest of the world embraced Ukrainian resistance to occupation as a worthy cause. 

But this fall, we Western liberals have not extended the same solidarity to the Palestinian people, who are suffering a fate much like that of the Ukrainians subjected to the initial Russian onslaught. This is a failure which will cost us if not remedied. Not only is the suffering of Gazan civilians a moral stain on the world order and especially the American conscience, but it also undermines liberals’ claim to abide by universal principles and the rules-based international order. The situations are not identical, but similar enough for both a self-reflective public and a critical global audience to see. Where Ukrainians needed and still need weapons and aid to defend themselves and rebuild their country, Palestinians need a humanitarian pause and negotiated ceasefire now, and sweeping structural changes to enjoy free and dignified lives in the long term.

It is of course important not to overstate the similarities between the two situations. Ukraine and Russia have a centuries-longer history than Israel and Palestine, and a more complex one, featuring periods of relative cooperation as well as attempted outright destruction of the Ukrainian people. By contrast, the history of the Israeli state is much shorter, and its relation with the Palestinian people since the 1948 war of independence has almost universally been one of dispossession and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. And while Ukraine has never fully escaped from Russian meddling in its politics and economy, it has enjoyed at least a de jure independence that has eluded Palestinians for their entire existence as a people. 

On the other hand, many, especially liberals, would be quick to point out that whatever the flaws in Ukraine’s democracy, it has managed peaceful elections and a transfer of power, leading to the administration of a popular president. By contrast, Hamas was last elected with a slim plurality of Palestinian voters 17 years ago and has ruled as an effective one party state—despite a lack of apparent popularity—in Gaza ever since. Moreover, even the most politically extreme elements of Ukraine’s military never invaded Russia, and the years leading up to the 2022 invasion were mostly free of the kind of atrocities visited by Hamas on Israel in October of this year. The brutality of these attacks, which fell primarily on Israeli civilians, broadly discredited Hamas as a partner in peace negotiations, and the shock has provided a great deal of cover for the worst Israeli excesses in the following weeks. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine lacked any kind of comparable provocation. But these differences and earned hostility towards Hamas ought not distract us from our humanistic obligations to Palestinian civilians.

Indeed, despite the differences in situation, there are striking similarities that should make supporters of Ukraine recoil at the scale and ferocity of the current Israeli response. Russia’s destruction of Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities, for example, was consistently justified by rooting out ‘terrorists’ and ‘Neo-Nazis’; in the same way, Israel’s pursuit of Hamas has justified the deaths of thousands of children. One needn’t dive into the relative virtues and villainy of Azov and Hamas to determine that these death tolls cannot possibly be justified by a mission to root out a fraction of a percent of the population. In each case the invading army has used deeply emotional and ethno-religiously charged comparisons—Hamas to ISIS, Azov to collaborators from the Second World War—to shut down reasoned discussion of proportionality. Airstrikes performed by both Russia and Israel are ostensibly justified by the close proximity of civilian and military targets in Gaza and Ukraine, leading in both cases to thousands of avoidable civilian casualties. 

It is high time to recognize the humanity of all victims of warfare. The images of bombed-out high rises and shattered hospitals coming out of Gaza could just have easily come out of Mariupol or Severodonetsk a year ago. But the response of too many liberals has been strikingly different. Many of us have extended the benefit of the doubt to the Israeli Defense Forces as they explained the apparent necessity of destroying civilian objects in a way that we wisely did not to the Russian Armed Forces. The affinity for a state that looks much more like our own liberal democracies in the west is understandable, but liberals with a sense of history should understand that militarism and the desire for territorial expansion can lead institutions ostensibly rooted in liberal values to commit atrocities.

There are obstacles, of course. One is that American voters have long sympathized with Israel over Palestine, and even as this sentiment undergoes generational shifts it is not reflected in Congress. Changing that will require lobbying and political pressure—and it will require working with people and organizations who have spent the last twenty months actively working against the effort to defend Ukraine. For example, though the Democratic Socialists of America has been at best lukewarm on defending Ukraine, and even as their International Committee has openly called for an end to US aid in Ukraine’s defense, DSA-linked politicians are still largely at the forefront of calling for restraint in Gaza and need support from the liberal majority in the Democratic party. Fortunately, the two causes, far from competing, are complementary. Right now, what the Palestinian people need is simply a pause to bombing to blunt the impact of epidemic disease and malnutrition that is inevitably going to strike Gazans who count in the dozens the trucks trying to supply their enclave of two million people and struggle to maintain even the basic necessities of life, such as an adequate flow of clean water. In the coming months Palestinians need the US to be willing to use its aid to Israel—and the possibility of suspending it—as leverage to demand a humanitarian pause to aerial bombings, especially of ‘safe zones’, provision of humanitarian supplies, and an emphasis on proportionality and adherence to international law. None of these goals require giving an inch on Ukraine; indeed, is it those demanding unlimited support to Israel that would see the two causes compete for artillery shells, rockets, and the like. The sooner Israel ceases its bombing and shelling in Gaza, the more ammunition can be sent to Ukraine. Beyond the question of materiel, moving the foreign policy of western countries in the direction of greater consistency in applying international law and the basic demands of humanity would advance all of our other diplomatic interests. The overwhelming majority of states in the UN voted to support a ceasefire in Gaza—aligning US and European policy better with this position will make finding allies in future diplomacy easier. 

In the longer term, of course, Ukraine and Palestine are qualitatively different in terms of their complexity. Ukraine’s allies have a simple task—give it the supplies and economic support it needs for conventional victory. Success in Palestine requires more nuance—Israel’s allies need to be more willing to tie repeated rounds of military aid to Israel, as well as cooperation in cutting-edge military systems and veto protection in the UN security council, to a systemic shift in how Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank are treated by the Israeli state. The carte blanche approach adopted up until now has only moved us further from the stated US policy of a two state solution. While the end state for the conflict is harder to both imagine and achieve than that of Ukraine—where the solution is simply a return of occupied territory to an already functional government—we should view Palestinian lives and aspiration as deserving the same respect and legitimacy that most westerners have seen in Ukrainian ones over the last two years.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was met with a show of strength and solidarity on the part of western liberalism. Protecting the safety and dignity of the Palestinian people will require a very different kind of effort, but it should be animated by the same sense of humanity and ideals of international cooperation.

Featured Image is Damage in Gaza Strip in October 2023


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164 days ago
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The Liberal Centrist Trap

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Right-wing populists and the advocates of the identity synthesis see each other as mortal enemies. In truth, each is the yin to the other’s yang. The best way to beat one is to oppose the other—and that’s why everyone who cares about the survival of free societies should vow to fight both.
The Liberal Centrist Trap

Classrooms in America are once again segregated, not because of racism but because racial minorities deserve spaces free of whiteness where they “can be their authentic selves.” Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs have fully colonized corporate spaces, government offices, and university administrations, enforcing strict controls on speech on pain of reeducation or outright termination. This “consequence culture” aims to protect minorities from cultural appropriation, microaggressions, and the tyranny of white, cis male concepts like merit and political neutrality. Progressive segregation simply acknowledges what standpoint epistemology has taught us: members of different identity groups cannot begin to understand one another and thus shouldn’t try; instead the member of the more privileged group should defer to the lived experience of the member of the more oppressed group.

Meanwhile incomes and comprehensive well-being have begun secular declines as redistributive programs have forsaken the interests of the least well off individuals in favor of group equity. Politically, the anti-whiteness of the identity revolution has turbo-charged white identity politics, as overt racism and white nationalism have been normalized to a degree not seen since the Civil Rights Era. Zero-sum conflict prevails as the white male elite defends itself and as different minority groups scuffle over who is the most oppressed and thus deserving of a greater portion of a shriveling husk of an erstwhile cornucopia.

This bleak vision of America in the grip of wokeness—what he calls the “identity synthesis” and others have called identity politics—haunts Yascha Mounk and animates his most recent book, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time. The founding editor of Persuasion explains the philosophical origins of wokeness, illustrates its influence on American culture and politics, and offers a defense of liberalism as an antidote to the woke malignancy.

The nightmare above truly is illiberal. If identity politics led inexorably to this bizarro dimension then it would be incumbent on liberals and all freedom-lovers to oppose it, root and branch. Yet despite his apparently broad reading of the identity politics literature and his occasional piercing anecdote, Mounk fails to persuade a critical liberal reader that identity politics must lead to his extreme conclusions, nor that the vices of identity politics outweigh its virtues, and certainly not that the key to defeating rightwing populism lies in vanquishing identity politics. 

The Identity Synthesis

Mounk distills the “identity synthesis” to three principles.

1. The key to understanding the world is to examine it through the prism of group identities like race, gender, and sexual orientation.
2. Supposedly universal values and neutral rules merely serve to obscure the ways in which privileged groups dominate those that are marginalized.
3. To build a just world, we must adopt norms and laws that explicitly make the way the state treats each citizen—and how citizens treat each other—depend on the identity group to which they belong.

“Identity synthesis” is just a new term for the conservative or centrist interpretation of identity politics, which is the term I will tend to use. The first problem jumps out even from this summary, and that is the totalizing of the concepts in question. Mounk declares identity politics is seen as the key to understanding, rather than, say, one essential prism among others. Do identity politics practitioners claim universal values and neutral rules “merely” obscure group domination or that they often do and it’s a dynamic we should prepare for?

This totalizing tendency pervades the book. Michel Foucault—the fountainhead in Mounk’s genealogy—saw all institutions and social relations as fundamentally reducible to power relations. Standpoint epistemology—a feminist innovation that explores how the ways we perceive and understand the world depend on our social positions—implies thoroughgoing mutual unintelligibility, that we can neither learn anything from nor communicate anything meaningful to those in other identity groups. Critical race theory (CRT), an academic movement which centers race as a fulcrum for understanding politics and the law, implies that a person’s race is the single most important thing about them. The move to advance racial and gender equity—equality at the level of identity groups—means we no longer care about equality at the individual scale, and certainly not about equality of treatment or measures of outcomes.

But this is all deeply silly. One can appreciate how Foucault perceived power in every social relation without believing that power is the only variable. Our social locations can shape the contours of our understanding without implying anything like mutual unintelligibility. Indeed such an interpretation of standpoint epistemology is perverse and peculiar. It certainly flies in the face of feminist consciousness raising, which depends on spreading awareness of how oppression manifests under patriarchy along with strategies to oppose it. The indisputable fact that race has profoundly shaped American history and even today powerfully influences an individual’s life prospects hardly implies that race is the only or even the most important aspect of an individual’s life. And of course the idea that those who advance racial or gender equity have thereby stopped caring about economic deprivation or inequality is absurd.

Mounk knows all this. Indeed one admirable feature of The Identity Trap is the author’s engagement with those he (dubiously) considers pioneers of wokeness: Foucault, the postcolonial theorists Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak, and the founding architects of CRT. Mounk argues that all these figures would disavow the “identity synthesis” and that there are nuanced interpretations of their ideas that liberals can appreciate. Foucault would remind his readers that identity politics will merely reconfigure power structures while Said admonished that “marginality and homelessness are not, in my opinion, to be gloried in; they are to be brought to an end,” which Mounk curiously takes to be a statement against identity politics. Mounk relates how CRT scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw often feels alienated from “intersectionality” (a term she coined) as it’s used in popular discourse, implying leftist misuses. She was likelier bemoaning malicious misrepresentations by the right. Mounk interviews feminist scholar Rachel Fraser about standpoint epistemology and acknowledges the core legitimacy—even usefulness—of the concept.

Mounk thus recognizes sophisticated versions of virtually every element of his “identity synthesis,” from Foucault to Said, standpoint theory to intersectionality. What then is the purpose of writing an entire book about the dangers of identity politics if its fundamentals are sound? Mounk insinuates that the reasonable application of identity politics is rare, and the implementation in the everyday world, especially on university campuses and in corporate DEI programs, is increasingly illiberal.

Mounk is at his strongest when dealing with shocking anecdata. It really does seem illiberal to—as in one of his first anecdotes—ensure that the little Black child always goes with the Black public school teacher. I wholeheartedly agree that cultural appropriation is a dicey concept, and his example of an “ethnically ambiguous” (but half-Chinese) student being admonished for recreating a Chinese work of art for a museum project is reprehensible. Cringy conversations on college campuses is a renewable resource.

Yet many of his carefully curated anecdotes are less alarming on close inspection. It doesn’t seem so illiberal for a university to reserve one floor of one residence hall for Black students on an opt-in basis. Even Mounk’s workhorse example, returned to repeatedly, falls short of ominous. Mounk is appalled that the Center for Disease Control would factor in social justice when determining how to roll out the first Covid vaccines. The initial recommendation was to introduce the second phase (after essential medical personnel) to Essential Workers, narrowly chosen over Adults Aged 65 and Over, even though the model suggested more lives would be saved by favoring adults over 65. Weighing against the extra lives were a greater vaccine uptake, a faster reduction of virus transmission, a consequent “multiplier effect” to more speedily return to normal social functioning, and—to Mounk’s horror—racial, ethnic, and class considerations. Access to life-saving medicine should not depend on skin color, Mounk piously intones.

Maybe Mounk is right. It’s a thorny public health ethics problem. The ethics are just more complicated than Mounk’s colorblind approach admits. On his logic, any positive number of lives saved should categorically outweigh any consideration of disparate racial impact. The thought experiments write themselves: if marginally more lives overall would be saved by giving  (by some proxy) white people the vaccine first even though a disproportionate number of racial minorities would perish, would that be the appropriate course of action? What of the social dynamics and the magnification of various wealth and well-being gaps that would ensue? As it happens, the increased burden on women due to juggling domestic and remunerated labor during the lockdowns was a major concern. But it’s unclear whether Mounk “sees gender” in pandemic response policy.

Pious indignation bears much of the argumentative load in The Identity Trap. There’s a lengthy stretch lamenting the proliferation of popular feminist websites like and A major thrust against CRT is that it denies racial progress generally and allegedly asserts the impossibility of racial progress except where it converges with white interests. Mounk quotes founding CRT scholar Derek Bell, for whom even successful efforts “will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.” Away from the Ivory Tower, Mounk laments that uses of terms like “racist” and “systemic racism” in major newspapers increased by multiples during the 2010s, as if such shifts can only mean we are getting oversensitive about racism, and that it is irrational to do so in light of our racial progress.

But shock at the belief that racism continues to be a defining institutional feature of American life is a poor argument against CRT and racial justice activism generally. Mounk fails to really countenance the possibility that CRT is correct or useful. The existence of a Black middle class or survey results showing that Americans largely no longer think that interracial marriage should be illegal don’t speak to the charges of CRT at all. Mass incarceration is racialized and the Black-white racial wealth gap doggedly persists. The election of the first Black president has to be understood alongside what followed: the swelling of white nationalist activity and violence and the election of an undeniably racist president riding a popular wave of white racial resentment. Whether or not there has been net racial progress does seem to “slide into irrelevance” as the backlash against the perceived decline of white male status forces us to drop everything else and fight like hell just to keep democracy on life support.

This cuts to the heart of why Mounk’s intellectual “origins of woke”thesis is not only dubious—more plausible genealogies start from the Romantic era nationalist movements and Hegelian recognition—but largely irrelevant. Racial justice, feminist activism, and LGBTQ liberation do not arise from Foucault or even CRT. They spring from the natural human impulse to seek freedom from inequality and oppression. People seeking to understand and overcome their own oppression will use what tools are available in the existing ideological milieu, as well as invent their own concepts and practices. Just as Frederick Douglass was an early exponent of standpoint epistemology, Sojourner Truth expressed an early version of intersectionality. And Martin Luther King Jr articulated the concept and the danger of the “white moderate” (MLK’s color-sighted phrase for the reactionary centrists of his time, more concerned with reducing tension than achieving justice). The many facets of identity politics find expression independently from any single genealogy, pull from multiple traditions at once, and often look nothing like the sampled source material. Mounk himself recognizes this when he rightly downplays Marx in his "identity synthesis." Abolition and suffrage movements long preceded Foucault, and there is little reason to think Mounk’s version of identity-blind liberalism is the rightful heir of these traditions.

Liberal identity politics

Mounk positions identity politics as fundamentally in opposition to liberalism and liberal values. Often this comes from the mouths the accused, as when CRT scholars claim “complacent, backsliding liberals represented the principal impediment to racial progress” and “liberal democracy and racial subordination go hand in hand,” or when they reject objectivity, meritocracy, and color-blindness. Some of this is simple calumny. The purpose of skepticism toward objectivity and meritocracy is—obviously—to strengthen rather than erode democracy. Distrust of liberals comes not from an intention to promote illiberalism but from disappointment with the long history of liberal accommodation with racial, gender, and other hierarchies.

Despite the tendency for many thinkers Mounk would place within the “identity synthesis” to reject the liberal moniker and for many centrist liberals to condemn the illiberalism of identity politics, there is no fundamental opposition between identity politics and philosophical liberalism. Indeed, for liberalism to approach its ambitions of universal freedom, liberals must embrace identity politics.

Political scientist Jacob T. Levy, noting the political energy for freedom the Black Lives Matter movement provided, argues that identity politics isn’t about “being on some group’s side” but about “fighting for political justice by drawing on the commitment that arises out of targeted injustice,” and leveraging the intellectual resources to recognize and diagnose oppression. Identity politics is vital for liberalism precisely because oppression is never neutral, color-blind, or universal.

Journalist Ian Dunt, author of How To Be a Liberal, offers a refreshing alternative for how liberals can think about identity politics. It can be a source of learning about freedom itself. Dunt fruitfully engages with identity politics from the Black feminist Combahee River Collective to queer and gender studies. Dunt’s observations of the liberal potential of queer theory are moving. Questioning the nature of terms like heterosexual and homosexual and presenting human sexuality as fluid and evolving opened up new frontiers of freedom. 

How many people silently suffered, too afraid to confess their feelings, under the terrible weight of that false choice? And now here was a theory that was offering liberals a solution. This was a whole new arena of human flourishing through free choices, without the anchored-down simplifications of old brute categories. It was rich, fertile terrain for liberalism, which it proceeded to almost completely ignore.

Like countless liberal centrists before him, Mounk accuses identity politics of zero-sum thinking, of retreating from universalism, and of corroding solidarity. As Black feminists have articulated since long before Crenshaw coined “intersectionality,” the entire purpose of reorienting ethics and politics from “margin to center”—from the most oppressed of various kinds inward to the privileged—is not to invert status hierarchies but to ensure universal well-being. We are more likely to achieve universal freedom by focusing on securing freedom for the most unfree first. Identity politics doesn’t pit groups against each other in an all-against-all mélée but cultivates solidarity across difference. 

Mounk treats society as essentially static. Social justice activism perturbs liberal society from its natural tendency to gradually bend along an arc of progress. Identity politics disrupts the trend toward justice by introducing illiberal practices into American society and provokes a rightwing reaction. This is what Mounk means by describing identity politics as the yin to the yang of right-wing authoritarianism. Right-wing authoritarians need the identity left to justify their own antiliberal ambitions. If the left would just abjure identity politics it would deprive fascism of oxygen. 

Liberal centrist reaction

This is an illusion. The authoritarian right only appears dormant when the dominance of traditional hierarchies—men over women; whites at the top and Blacks at the bottom; queers, sex workers, and other deviants in the closet; and trans people non-existent—is secure, when the unfreedom of disfavored groups enjoys broad support across party lines. This was the case when Jim Crow enjoyed significant support in both the Republican and Democratic parties. When some progress is made toward equality, rightwing resentment activates and racism, misogyny, and authoritarianism turn very impolitely overt. Under such circumstances any activism for freedom for the marginalized are relentlessly recast by reactionary narratives as aggressive, as overreactions, as illiberal.

This is how defenders of segregation described the Civil Rights Movement. And the always guaranteed presence of unsympathetic social justice advocates—college students, actual far left extremists, and academics unprepared for sound bite warfare—is presented as evidence of the illiberalism and overreach of social justice as such. The yin-yang of rightwing authoritarianism and identity politics is only plausible if, like Mounk, you naïvely assume the political right is not always hard at work defending traditional hierarchies and opposing equality.

The Identity Trap is somewhat better than similar books of the anti-woke genre. Mounk does engage with serious scholars in social justice traditions. My hope is that at least some readers will find their way to original source material, to which Mounk has left some trails of breadcrumbs. Mounk mercifully repudiates the far worse “cultural Marxism” yarn. Yet in the final analysis Mounk’s argument is reactionary. Mounk demands that those seeking freedom from oppression follow his playbook, and when they fail to do so they are condemned for sowing the wind and reaping the fascist whirlwind. Instead of highlighting the many liberal possibilities of identity politics and guiding his readers around pitfalls amidst tricky ideas and complicated thinkers, Mounk presents identity politics as inevitably illiberal. Mounk thus nudges his readers closer to the antiliberalism of Christopher Rufo and Richard Hanania—whose own antiwoke volumes could snuggle comfortably next to The Identity Trap on the shelf—than to any liberalism worth fighting for.

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171 days ago
New York, NY
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Fascism and the Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century

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Fascism and the Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century

The lessons of the twentieth century have not been learned. From Russia to China, from Azerbaijan to Israel and Palestine, fascist political projects are gaining strength. Vladimir Putin maunders about "Russkiy mir;" and already the casualties from the ongoing war in Ukraine are measured in the hundreds of thousands. In Baku they issue postage stamps depicting an exterminator "disinfecting" Nagorno-Karabakh; a hundred and twenty thousand Armenians have just fled those exterminators, and it is not clear that Azerbaijan intends to stop there. In Israel Ariel Kallner calls for a "second Nakba" while ostensible leftists cheer the slaughter of more than a thousand innocent people, even babies in their cribs, because "this is what decolonization looks like." And in Beijing Xi Xinping speaks about "the rejuvenation of the Chinese people"—with more than a million Uyghurs in camps, and his eye firmly fixed on Taiwan and its twenty-three million free people.

These are fascist political projects. I say that in full awareness of the weight of those words. These projects assume that ethnic homogeneity is the path to peace and prosperity. They assume that "ethnically correct" borders are the way to safety and security. Where fascism goes beyond simple conservatism is in its willingness to pay in blood for these goals. Revanchist, revisionist, irredentist, call it what you will: fascists intended to redraw the map with the sword in order to secure their vision of an ethnically pure and strong nation. This logic inexorably leads to the reorientation of their own civilian societies around the needs of war. For in pursuit of these ethnonational projects they are willing to countenance great suffering not just of others but of their own people. Putin feeds hundreds of thousands of Russians into his meat grinder. Netanyahu props up Hamas because undermining Palestinian statehood ranks higher than the safety of his own people. Xi suppresses domestic consumption in order to maintain the heavy industries he needs for war in the Taiwan Strait. But Russia must have its empire and Israel its Jewish character and China its place in the sun. Fascism is the idea that people exist for the sake of the nation, not the state for the sake of its people. Fascism is the project of slaughtering your way to glory.

These goals are all based on a zero-sum view of the world. Fascists view the world as composed of nations—peoples, in some nationalist-ethnic sense—that are always struggling against one another for a fixed pie of land, natural resources, and preeminent power. There is only so much to go around, and for us to have enough they must have less. It was this imperialist logic that led Fascist Italy into Africa, Nazi Germany into Eastern Europe, Imperial Japan into Southeast Asia—and to all the horrors that followed. A logic of limited resources and violent extraction.

It is no surprise that conservatives across the Western world have embraced these ideas. What is shocking is how many Western leftists have done the same. They too see a zero-sum world in which peace will only be achieved once "the wrong people" have been ethnically cleansed. They may dress it up in the language of liberation or decolonization, but these days you can hear the old chants of blut und boden echoing beneath. Meanwhile, old ecofascist rhetoric only barely cleaned up from The Population Bomb now circulates under the name of "degrowth." Too many on the left share the right's fundamentally zero-sum view of the world, differing only in who they want on top of the pile. "Decolonization is not a metaphor," you say—well, you will forgive me for taking you at your word.

Fascism in the twentieth century emerged at a time when it seemed that liberal democracy was collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions—when liberal democracy seemed to consist of nothing more than teetering colonial empires and economic catastrophe. The twenty-first century has seen nothing to equal the catastrophes of the Great Depression or the Congo Free State or the First World War. And yet in the twenty-first as in the twentieth, for many people around the world, it seems that liberal democracy has run out of steam. The century's first twenty years can hardly be claimed as great victories for liberal democracy. We have lived through the ravages of the Great Recession, seen ever-growing homeless encampments in our richest cities, police brutality against our citizens, border brutality against refugees, the steady erosion of our democratic rights and freedoms, the rich growing ever richer and the middle class ever more precarious—and meanwhile abroad a foreign policy of unaccountable torture, unaccountable murder, unaccountable occupation, on and on without end. It's understandable to believe that liberal democracy cannot deliver on its promises—that indeed these promises are nothing but smokescreens over the domination and exploitation underneath—that "prosperity" is just code for hard-fisted capitalists dominating and exploiting the 99%, "freedom" just a cover for drone strikes and Abu Ghraib, "democracy" just a facade over border camps and minority rule. Not "liberal democracy" but "late capitalism," the zero-sum truth showing through liberalism's lies.

And maybe you believe that. Perhaps you're on the right and you think the nature of the world is an irreconcilable Struggle between the Races. Perhaps you're on the left and you think the same thing, you just differ on which races you want to see on top. Either way, this essay is not for you. This essay is for those who still believe in liberalism—in the idea that bent the arc of history—that freedom, democracy, and prosperity for all is not a pipe dream but a fighting faith.

In the twenty-first century as in the twentieth, the only thing strong enough to stop this fascist tide is liberal democracy—a genuine liberal democracy that lives up to its own highest ideals of universal human dignity, equal rights, and shared prosperity.  But for too long we have acted like we are living in the end of history, like all that's needed is a little tinkering around the edges, like all that's necessary is to build a retirement home for our own nostalgia. We need a liberalism that shakes the rust off: a liberalism that builds the future. We need a liberalism that builds a future of green technology and abundant housing. We need a liberalism that can reject unjust foreign adventures while standing for free nations defending themselves from tyranny. We need a liberalism that does not just restore the democratic rights and the rule of law that Republicans have worked so hard to tear down, but that goes further and goes forward: a new voting rights act, new states in Puerto Rico and Washington DC, reform of the Senate and the Electoral College, fundamental rights to bodily autonomy. We need a liberalism that welcomes immigrants from all across an increasingly unstable world.

The lessons of the twentieth century have not been learned. You cannot genocide your way to peace. You cannot conquer your way to prosperity. You cannot oppress your way to freedom. But the sun has not gone down yet. It is not 1933 yet. This time, we have a chance to make different choices. Let us, as liberals, be the proof that liberal democracy works—that pluralist, multiethnic liberal democracy works—that liberalism can create a world of not domination but mutual respect, not extraction but shared prosperity, not irreconcilable war but genuine peace. My neighbor's freedom is my freedom. My neighbor's prosperity is my prosperity. We must not retreat, not today, not ever, from those truths.

Featured Image is Vladimir Putin

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173 days ago
New York, NY
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