“narcotic earnestness” and the exclusion of working class people

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.

19 responses to ““narcotic earnestness” and the exclusion of working class people

  1. I think you misread “intellectual seriousness without a narcotic earnestness” which to me clearly contrasts Jacobin & New Inquiry, et al, to earnest publications that have been around for a longer time and have perhaps become sclerotic, in the US from the RCP, to Monthly Review, Science & Society, other publications of hangover sects–to HM in the UK (which I read and is useful, but dry) and others–The narcotic earnestness is the diction and voice of these publications that have decided that they have found the true path to revolution or whatever. Henwood’s quote is saying Jacobin & New Inquiry have “heart” (because they are not coming from a pious perspective) and because they are intellectual without getting bogged down by a delusional group-think.

    You then write that “the “new left” is pushed in the direction of academic dryness” But Henwood’s quote, again, is refuting that. Not to mention every New Inquiry article is the opposite of dry (witches, drugs, pick almost any article), Aaron Bady reviewed Lincoln in Jacobin, culture, arts, movies, music and also economic analysis and report backs of struggles find their way into Jacobin. You go on, “blocked ears and inaction” as if creating internet hubs for “left” discourse and writing for them isn’t *action* or *work* or doesn’t itself create dialogue, awareness.

    Posited against all this are the “workers”. But writers are workers. Are they proletarian? Perhaps not, but writers for these publications come from a variety of work places beyond the writer’s desk like sex work and other disparate jobs. You are also assuming that your “workers” are not reading these publications. But one could more easily assume that workers do read these articles, especially unionized teachers in Chicago to mention one known group that has published a pamphlet in collaboration with Jacobin.

    So as someone who has read these publications this quote appears more than misleading:

    “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. ”

    I’m in sympathy with your proletarian perspective, but I think the reality of reading these publications and the diversity of the output contradicts the media image of “brooklyn” socialists that you are taking at face value and reifying.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment on this post. It actually caused me to rethink my position completely. I think your comment was especially helpful in that it helped to remind myself that Jacobin is a for profit publication. The donations are not tax deductible and will only get you a quarterly expense report. So when I read your statement about these outlets not offering a “true path to revolution” my first thought was, good, because it’s a business. Jacobin interacts with enough non-profit ventures to make one forget, perhaps, that it’s a business model and not necessarily a means to making the world a better place.

    I think it’s confusing for a lot of activists because we put a lot of hope into the word “socialism”. And we usually try not to imagine it as something being branded and used for making a profit. I think when a for-profit entity that seeks a niche market is suddenly seen as representing the “new left” that is considerably more terrifying than not representing workers – though maybe I should have said working class – in said entity. Jacobin, for instance, is honest in that it presents itself as a magazine of “polemics” and at least TNI’s Rachel Rosenfelt admits she is not a socialist. But when commercial entities are speaking out both sides of their mouths, it’s very dishonest. To throw up their hands and say “I am just a magazine” but then also represent themselves – or allow themselves to be represented – as a “new left” of sorts, when this assignation representation leads to notoriety, profit or income, is dishonest. They admit they want champagne instead of PBR. In this case, plugging their ears and not listening to criticism, or providing a space for dialogue, and publishing controversial positions is a rather logical business decision, not an ideological stance.

    As for creating a space for dialogue (albeit truncated, with the editorial line for sure) as “work”, please reflect that ad space is sold for these spaces, and that you have to “donate” to access expense reports.

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  4. guavapuree, the lack of earnestness in this case is a way of describing the frivolous quality of these entertainment commodities Jacobin and NI, their bourgeois self importance and infantilism, their lack of substance and the contempt this shows for the kinds of projects they are mimicking superficially. Like Henwood’s incessant vilification of actual working class struggle, their serial attacks on working class and anticapitalist militants (they even tore obtusely into Graeber’s hit Debt) are typically glib and childish (the sandbox bully style) – their critics are masturbating flashers on the subway, digital herpes, mentally ill etc,, while their casual ‘errors’ build to the level of unrelenting pro imperialist disinfo – eg vastly reducing the death toll of US empire, bizarrely insisting Frederick Douglass was a free soil gradualist, ignorantly confusing Ralph Miliband and Michael Harrington, asserting racist fables regarding narcotraffic etc, All this is served up in the context their incessant advice to and communqués on behalf of “the Left” whom they claim leadership of and persistently, openly and aggressively labour to distinguish from the working class and especially the majority of color, and the privileged kvetches about being expected to tip and being insufficiently adored for ordering filet mignon bleue at the Water Club. These practices produce nothing in the way of either useful reporting or camaraderie,but only their posturing, shallow chatter, fraudulence, self promotion, careless and opportunistic revisionsm, and the purveying of triviality mixed with pure bullshit, always on the side of reaction, always apology for the status quo, always white supremacist.

  5. This infinitely ironic minstrelsy illustrates the bourgeois callousness, careerism and cynicism that is the engine of the whole project, proud of that narcotic lack of earnestness it shares with the capitalist mass media


    Bhaskar: Being a part of an internationalist Leninist conspiracy, I reject such identiarianism. But I will note this sir: I’ve gotten around five or six #FF plugs from you, but I just checked and you’re not following me on Twitter — horrible ethnic solidarity.
    Reihan: I applaud you for your cosmopolitan working-class solidarity. I prefer tribalism myself. And the Twitter thing is just because I have to manage the number of radicals in my feed, or I’m liable to go storming barricades by accident. ,

  6. Their Palestine issue was all about Palestinian – or as they put it ‘Arab’ – perfidy and complicity, garnished with rude but empty flings at BDS (accused of a ‘barren obsession with international law’ and, ‘solipsisms and ultra-leftist foibles, its quarrels and magnetic attraction for eccentrics, opportunists, and, yes, the occasional antisemite,’ something they failed to remark on about the admired Tea Party or their own magazine) and liberal Zionist Hegelian sood history in which “the Palestinians’ never existed. Their staged cheering for BDS licensed their abuse, using their typical manoeuvre that Judith Butler characterised as ‘speaking for to speak against;’ Their editorial offered nothing but this vilifcation of BDS, presented as if paternally and forgivingly. going so far as unjustly and iagoesquely to accuse Palestinians and their allles of draining energy from antiwar activism, which Jacobin nonetheless decided to ‘support’, in no particular way. (that is to put on the t-shirt of, to adorn themselves in the image of) solely because of its popularity with their target demographic. Most obstreperously reactionary of all, Palestinians and their supporters are adjured to respect the interests of the Jews in the Israeli working class as possessors of Jewish supremacist privilege who must not suffer what they themselves would consider the “injustice” of the loss of the Israeli version of white supremacy. Effectively they evoked the existence of Jews in the Israeli working class to excuse a posture protective of the Israeli bourgeoisie as they worked to restore long debunked Zionist mythology and hint at something unsavoriy and irrational in ‘the bloom of student interest in this old and bloody colonial conflict’ (which, they add, ‘is something the Left ought to take interest in, because the Left is not just an idea but also the masses in motion’ [sic])

  7. There is a historical gap that has opened up over the past decades in the publishing world. What sort of general magazines or journals would a left-thinking person in the US have subscribed to in the 1980s, 90s, early 2000s? the Nation? Harpers? Unless I’m mistaken, it’s difficult to think of many that had any ability to break into the mainstream and incite an argument–& many, yes, “sect”-publications that continued still had a “narcotic earnestness”, which in the context of a triturated left only served to further isolate these ideas & organizations. I could be ignorant of a few publications that were widely-read in the globalization/NoLogo scene or elsewhere, but essentially my point is that these was, and still currently is a huge hole in the publishing world for the circulation of socialist, left, revolutionary ideas, critique, theory. (sidenote: is it not embarrassing that the newleft, SDS, anti-war, hippie scene couldn’t pull together a new publication to crystalize in any way what they were fighting for? Or the great majority just gave up and gave in to capitalist realism I guess.)

    The fact that this vacuum is currently being populated with a handful of print/web publications founded by college-educated left-leaning types only makes perfect historic sense to me. The hole is too big, the “demand” is too strong, it’s happening and will continue to happen. That is the conjuncture and these publications will be for-profit (not that non-profit confers any anti-capitalist brownie points, on the contrary) and they will be jousting with the liberal pundit class for the next decades.

    I feel alphonsevanworden’s critiques have merit, except that the tone seems to be “I smell a rat” /poshleft and thus everything they publish is soiled, guilt-by-association. Flipping through the latest fall issue I just don’t think the diversity of articles qualifies as “frivolous…entertainment commodities.” Seriously, just flip through the Fall 2013 issue. This is not “always on the side of reaction, always apology for the status quo, always white supremacist.” I didn’t read the Israel issue so I wouldn’t know the problems with those arguments, perhaps this led you to your current opinion, perhaps their ed on BDS was horrible, but perhaps as Chomsky said “Like all tactics, particular implementations have to be judged on their own merits. Here there is room for legitimate disagreement. ”

    this huge hole on the left of the publishing world/information dissemination/mass media is slowly being filled by savvy self-starters & yes they are trumpeting their merits and receiving nods from the Big Other, but by focusing one’s affect into a kind of rage that veers into hyperbole I think misses what historically is happening and what was bound to happen if you only look at the past 20 years. I think manyfesto’s seeing them as businesses is helpful here. There is money and notoriety to be made, right now, by filling the gap with platforms where different writers can say things about the current “left” and have their articles read thousands of times because there are thousands and thousands of worker-readers around the world thirsty for a left perspective that resonates with now.

    More importantly: there is also space, right now, for other publications to rise and gain many readers to the left of Jacobin, New Inquiry, etc. And perhaps intersect more with the working class. The space is for the taking, and creating such a platform is called politics. Which by definition is a difficult and messy business.

    And just a side note, just because capitalism fetishizes champagne, or anything, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a luxury good. The basques make a sparkling wine Txakoli. This was/is a kind of home-made concoction like Plum Brandy in the Balkans. Golden toilets, etc. . .

    • when you say on one hand that they present no clear path or ideology, but on the other hand they’re useful for pushing an agenda in mainstream capitalist press, I am confused.

      also champagne is considered a luxury good, of course everyone should have it if they want it, but the way it’s contrasted with PBR is pretty much making my point in that they want luxury via your money in their pockets, not that they want to overthrow capitalism and nationalize champagne production and distribution

  8. Monthly Review remains the best; you can read quite a lot of good jounalism on Znet. What you want is snarky movie reviews and vacuous adolescent opinionettes, and they are everywhere – Jacobin and NI are really on that level of blogs except their slick self promoting publishers got the funds to package this stuff expensively.

  9. what ‘socialist’ ‘argument’ has Jacobin incited in the mainstream? The shocking revolutionary notion that you should see The Lone Ranger this weekend? And after if you are gentrifying you should refuse to tip? What is your argument for the admirable usefulness of these ‘radical’ ‘ideas’ and what evidence have you that even these are achieving viral proliferation?

  10. you write
    . This is not “always on the side of reaction, always apology for the status quo, always white supremacist.”

    but yes, it is. Always.
    Of course Gavin Mueller’s piece is an exception but they use this, and now things scavenged from blogs, as disguise.

  11. ‘I didn’t read the Israel issue so I wouldn’t know the problems with those arguments,’

    you should familiarize yourself with the contentt\ of the magazines being discussed before venturing a judgement about them But your not having read them does explain why your opinion of the publications is so strange and invalid.

  12. Also the Big Other is not Big Brother or the Establishment, it is l’Autre a part of the psyche constructed by babymind in its incomplete process of subjectification according to Lacan,

  13. My interpretation of DH’s remark was that by “narcotic earnestness” he meant dispassionate. Taryn was right to couple it with the quote from Owen Jones, although Jones to me was railing against class-baiting (I just glanced his article). I think guavapuree is nitpicking over words rather than engaging with the substantive truth Taryn is bringing to the fore — that the existing socialist left is inward, snobbish, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about living breathing people, workers especially.

    For me, the problem with Jacobin is not that it’s for-profit but that it is decidedly against polemic (see here for example) because it is a vehicle for vanity and self-promotion. If people are picking it up, it’s only because the “competition” (RCP, PSL, ISO, WWP) is even more barren intellectually. Jac is style over substance, snark over depth, gloss over content, which is why they spend inordinate amounts of time on topics like sex work and other “disparate jobs” — it is the petty-bourgeois fascination with the lives of the desperate and the marginal. ‘Cool’ to look at, hell to be in. All of this is also largely true of Historical Materialism. A British comrade I correspond with was telling me horror stories about HM and one Sebastian Budgen, his (rather ugly) encounters with Bshaskar Sunkara, and pointed out how both operations are about creating a financially self-sustaining ‘Marxist’ bloviatocracy. That I think is why the for-profit nature of Jacobin makes it pernicious.

    I was hoping for The North Star to be the opposite of all this, a platform for the non-bloviators, non-bullshitters, and non-snake oil ‘socialists’ (like Taryn and guavapuree) who are essentially homeless on the current far left, a place for serious differences to be hashed out without it turning into the tired name-calling, r-r-revolutionary posturing, and general scabbery that usually results when people don’t see eye to eye on something. I might have failed but failing at that is much better than succeeding in marketing a vanity project as a serious political effort and suckering people into chasing a mirage.

  14. As for providing a needed platform for their material, nonsense Daily Kos and Huffpost have much greater reach for this same crap. The kind of dissident and Marxist journalism one finds At BAR, ZNET/mag, MR, Venzuelanalysis, Voltairenet, Counterpunch etc etc, is never printed in Jacobin or NI which in fact only notice Red perspectives and publications to attack them. These hipster publications are attempts to brand mainstream entertainment as radical left by mere insistence and a logo which only exhibits distastefully the supremacist entitlement with which they appropriate and rewrite the history of the exploited and revolutionary.

  15. “The space is for the taking”

    You think so because you belong to that solipsist species that always sees the land without people, the space for the taking, the world, and of course The Left and Politics yet another virgin territory for your brand flag and a blank canvas for your entrepreneurial self-fashioning and exploitation.

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  17. I once called the Brooklyn “leftists” a circular admiration society. You have one of them destroying a workers’ education program, with another cheering from the sidelines. One does a gig at the rightwing think tank while chastising left institutions for not paying very well. Yet they promote themselves as champions of the oppressed. You have a third person going on about eating in a super high end restaurant (meal for two at least three hundred dollars) and the celebrity sitting close by. Then this one babbles on about communism. A fourth does an interview with a British newspaper in which he says, yes, capitalism sucks, but a guy has got to make a living. If this means writing a newsletter selling for $7,500 a pop, so be it. I didn’t know Jacobin was for profit, but it certainly fits the overall philosophy of the wunderkinder.

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