On Looting, Love and Leftism

We must love. Leftism is love. We don’t have to love leftism to be left. We have to recognize that the only way to love is by going left. We have to examine our doubts about the left but ultimately we must go forward hand in hand with the left or risk not loving at all or loving in a fleeting way at best.

Slavoj Zizek is dismissed as a sort of fascist by many on the left because he poses the very same formulation Michelle Alexander does in The New Jim Crow. For Zizek, the question isn’t whether the stereotypes of Jewish people during the Holocaust were true. Just as for Michelle Alexander the question isn’t whether black people who suffered mass incarceration are guilty.

Let me back up. Most self-identified leftists parted ways with me after a moment I think changed the course of American history: the George Floyd protests. I already had felt some distance growing between myself and most on the left over what I saw as acute alienation from poor communities of color who were largely segregated from the highly ideological world of certain leftists. This is not an argument against idealism. To the contrary I saw this theoretical formulation of politics on the left to not be positive enough and found it to be willfully ignoring the real resilience of grassroots politics.

There is something idealistic about engaging in the real and something supremely pessimistic about utopia.

For me the left had the right answers but not the right questions. I had no real opposition to the left and while I admitted I was no longer a leftist I wanted to understand the left more than ever. I was bothered by Marxists partly because I saw a romanticization of the poor and working class which glossed over the violence and tragedy of class rule.

I found myself being drawn to Martin Luther King’s Kantian intervention into Marxism. What King liked about Kant was that he saw people as an end in themselves not just a means to an end. This means we should recognize people as valuable no matter what, whether or not they prove our assumptions correct.

On a related level King appreciated that Kant recognized knowledge is formed through the creative mind even if the basis of knowledge is material experience. Rather than reduce history to the inevitable and the society to one of predictable self-interested class interest the mind creates something of its own from the material experience.

This is the dead end that I found the political spectrum pointing me to. Was the future really fixed? Was history really determined completely by material interests? This presented itself as right wing, if it was anything. Wasn’t it more true that people and societies acted in a much more creative way?

I became convinced that it was this ideological turn that alienated the left from class and prevented the left from achieving emancipation of the poor. Furthermore I saw that this ideology was not just misguided but a way to run from the real.

While the concrete organizing was exactly in the right direction (unions, mutual aid, direct non violent action) it was always the explanation of the supposed failure of the left that confused me. From my view the left has been tremendously successful and still is in pushing back against the logic of capitol. Again and again people organize together to assert something other than profit and its polluting force from happening.

The world is degrading and losing resources and this presents a final blow but let’s not skip ahead. Look at how well the left has slowed down profit and cruelty. Furthermore the question of propaganda framed through George Orwell etc. was overrated. Most people are left and act as such (communally oriented). Testing people on ideology only undermines the tendency of human beings to creatively survive against the real world and the logic of capital.

To me Alexander and Zizek posed a question the left needed to answer if it was ever going to beat the overwhelming propaganda against it. The left wanted to keep asking “who was looting? Who are the real looters?”. Now already we are in a war of ideas and outside of the real proof. Let’s assert that the left isn’t the looters because it opposes cruelty rather than assert that the left isn’t looters because of digging through the tape.

Again the lived experience is already confirming Marx correct and intervening into the propaganda through the passage of time alone. It is not in the war of ideas where Marxism will be won. We will win the society Marx promised when it is realized in the real. If Marxism is the material theory then it is already happening to us and need not be said. To the contrary saying exactly how it will unfold is the only thing stopping the natural antagonism causing a revolution. In other words Kantian creativity will express Marxism on its own and it is only when we become distracted with liberal questions of sorting people that we divert from political economy.

The ideological battle in the United States has much to do with whether one accepts the facts. Liberals and conservatives generally agree on what the facts are. Liberals believe the facts and conservatives do not. The big battle for liberals in terms of Jewish people is much to do with proving the stereotypes used by the right are false. However this is not worth much. The implication, as Zizek points out, is if what Nazis were saying about Jewish people were true, then the Holocaust would be justified.

The same premise goes in The New JIm Crow by Michelle Alexander. The neoliberal era, headed by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, attempts to define authoritarian class rule by means of worthiness of poor people. Specifically in Alexander’s work the mass incarceration of black people lies on the same Jewish question: if they are guilty. For liberals the question remained a technical one and this was how Bill Clinton and Joe Biden could do what they did. Rather than ask if black people should be going to jail we were stuck debating whether or not a crime was committed.

For Zizek the answer to the question of Jewish economic and cultural success is itself a fascist question because it doesn’t deal with the real atrocity. Likewise for Alexander it is fascist to be asking about if the stereotypes of black people are true is the bipartisan fascist twist.

The coronavirus is another example of how we debate along technical lines. Liberals celebrated Anthony Fauci despite him overseeing hundreds of thousands of deaths and making hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why was he celebrated? Because he believed the virus was bad. But this was never the question, or it shouldn’t have been. Even if we found out the virus was some sort of plot by Bill Gates and company we still should be taking precautions because we care for the health of our neighbor. Even if we didn’t trust the facts the very possibility that we could be endangering our neighbor should be good enough. The same goes for the stereotypes of Jewish bankers and black criminals.

Rather than spend so much time explaining how homosexuality is “not a choice” we should be saying being gay is great, and we don’t care if you feel free or not about this choice. Rather than explain how poor people “work hard” we should be saying poverty, not being lazy, is the thing that offends us. Rather than saying immigrants “make us better” we should be saying that we will gladly take the immigrants who make us worse because they need us the most. Rather than saying climate change “is real” we should be saying the we should care for our natural world regardless.

Can the left intervene in this dynamic? I think so but I still want to address where I part ways with the stereotype of the left. When I defended looting and I was denounced as a fascist by leftists who had no idea of the strain on the community. I then made a brief and regrettable journey into the so-called populist left who spent most of their time trying to prove class was real, which only provided further alienation from the self-evident nature of class war.

For the left there was only two answers to a profound moment in American history. The first answer was that there could only be a right wing infiltration into the model minority, model working person, etc. There was no sense of the complexity laid out by Zizek and Alexander. Class inequality creates dynamics and from this a variety of actions occur. It is not so simple as finding the most left wing response. Real life is dynamic and time changes things. We also must look at how our actions interact with society.

Now I was not only a non leftist by my definition, but by the definition of the left. This was hard to come to terms with but I had to admit it. I was more interested in the question of what would be the right way to treat people, not what they did or who they are. In this way the left became too sectarian. I couldn’t grasp this conditional love.

This remains the problem too for everything within the umbrella of what claimed to be the populist left. In the attempt to provide a universal neutral definition of a group all particulars are ignored and reality is completely passed by. Indeed I saw the George Floyd rebellion as cruel for only one reason: the actions of the ruling class to violently crack down on people for expressing their voice. The question over whether the protests were left never came to my mind, I had to admit. I thought it was awful what happened to Mr. Floyd, and so did most people. I am not sure if it’s as complicated as people said it was.

I wanted to be completely honest about what was going on in the city. I wanted to be honest, even if the left wouldn’t believe it, that police abandoned poor communities of color, and that this was a continuation, not a break from, the rest of society’s attitude towards these communities. I also wanted to point out that in a mass uprising not everyone agrees and this is ok. This is another reason I don’t understand the left. For some reason everyone has to agree.

I knew many people were uprising because of the anxiety from covid, climate change, and economic anxiety and that while Black Lives Matter has a significant history of non violent mass organization this was not necessarily the case for the ideologically diverse crowd suffering alienation and seeking a rebellion, if not a revolution. Indeed I never bought the case that the world was now woke, and this was the new tyranny.

I saw people, flawed as we are, rising up, and I didn’t find it that important to be asking who was worthy and who wasn’t. Yes there was a history of black resistance and radicalism we should point to. But then again the romanticism of this was highly problematic. The necessity of such leadership by marginalized people only proved the utter failure of the ruling class to treat people with dignity and more importantly the profound tragedy for those who resisted and were punished.

Indeed it was this glorification of suffering that I found to be the ultimate white flag I see in much of the sadist culture of America. So yes the question of the “looter” still keeps me up at night. I question why such a stereotype was invented but I also question why it worked on liberals and leftists. Why did such an old simple lie that poor people of color are criminal cause such a mass misreading of what I see as pivotal moment for America.

It was in this moment that we found out that America can and will be a place for revolution, when the time is right. It will not be the exact right kind of revolution, or the one we imagine the glorious Other can only deliver. It will be the revolution in each one of us. It will be like the rest of our souls, a flawed and confusing affair. We will only miss it if we keep asking if we’re worthy of it. We never will be. The world shouldn’t be so cruel.

People shouldn’t be dying because they’re poor. The planet shouldn’t be dying because of our way of life. Tragedy should happen less and we shouldn’t get so much meaning out of tragedy or we risk letting that be our enjoyment. While I don’t like the term populist because of the way it has been weaponized I do think that we should spend a lot less time proving how popular the left is. It’s popular, of course, because there are a lot of poor people. The question isn’t about how great or true the left the question should be how do we make things better?

In this regard I don’t think we need to prove the Nazis wrong for they relied on their own pseudo science. Rather we should be intervening with a moral question. The liberal technocrat always has a rational reason for their cruelty, the conservative needs no such provable reason, they only need to reaffirm that the liberal is asking the right question by disagreeing with what could only be described as fact. The challenge for the left is how to intervene in this battle between who is worthy with a universal. Admittedly for a universal to be possible we will need to be more tolerant of difference and in this spirit, I will say in the Christian sense of the word I do love the left even if I remain bewildered by their interpretation of the George Floyd rebellion.

I do think the left agrees that it was a moment of importance and change in our society and that we are all better because of it. I also concede that while I don’t get the point of proving how moral the left is I think this effort comes from a good place. I also think the left had to re-examine the ways in which power was linked to economic policy for certain people on the left while for more marginalized people questions of colonialism, violence, patriarchy, and environment came into play. I give the left credit and I am grateful for the left. But I think the left agrees I’m not a leftist. I’ll happily accept the label of liberal as most of you leftists have been calling me and I hope we can work together towards a more egalitarian society.

How did we get here? Why is the left a place that haunts my mind, even as I attempt to move away? We can’t look away. I think this is what the left is telling me. Keep trying. Keep building. Don’t give up. This means very specific political organizational expression. This also means letting go of the question of whether one is to be accepted by the left, ultimately the same egotistical question of belonging that is important but not everything.

Everything is everybody and every time and every place and every living thing. It is not over. The left seems like the right train to board. Follow the left, see where it takes you. Trust you aren’t in control, and you’re part of something greater. You’re not alone. You’re not important. But you do exist. So you might as well be politically left in this life if it can make the world better. Even if it (the left) makes no sense at all. Keep trying to understand the left. Keep supporting the left. One day it will be clear and you’ll be glad you helped the left with wherever they are trying to go.

A fixation on the horror of looting is weighing down the left. Why do this when so many people are suffering? The left gets it correct most of the time. Let’s celebrate the left and join hands in organizations, get offline and stop talking so much about Marx and Kant. Of course the revolution must be non violent and won’t involve looting. But we already know that so why so much hate going around?

So exhausting, all this hate of the left. Who has the energy for it? So leftists, stop dumping on other leftists. The only way I found out of this sectarianism was to become a liberal Kantian. When one becomes a liberal Kantian they can join hands with every leftist and soon all the world will be merry and equal and no one will be suffering. Of course this takes concrete organizing of building bridges with the ordinary person, who by being at all, is extraordinary, and deserves a lot more credit and love.

Like it or not the world is going left. The world is filling up with love, love expressed politically. Public love is leftist love. Private love is private love and has the name of private love. Public love is expression of leftism. Go and be left today. Don’t be afraid. Keep going left. More and more left. It will feel extreme. This is love. There is no such thing as too much leftism.

We need an over-saturation of leftism to the point that the left is everything we do and it’s like the air we breathe. We need to become leftists in such a profound sense that it becomes synonymous with living itself. Our heart beats for the left. The left keeps us alive, not just spiritually, but materially through the rights it gives us. Thank you left. We can’t thank the left enough. We cannot praise the left enough. The left is too worthy of praise to ever take for granted. The left isn’t just a lifestyle. It’s a way of being. It’s the way of being.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com