The new ideological fractures

On turning left into darkness

A response to critics and a more positive elaboration of my current thinking.

In the past week, many associates of mine on the radical left have expressed grave concern about my recent cultural politics. If you haven’t been following, here’s my best shot at a succinct, impartial recap. I have been blogging about what it means to engage intellectually with smart people on the right. By “smart people on the right,” I mean people with non-trivial intellectual projects defending right-wing perspectives, potentially even including some that appear horrifying and/or evil. I use the word “smart” only to exclude from the mind two images that have come to define “conservatism” in the left-wing imagination: infantile and fundamentally disingenuous politicians, and then mindless, racist armies of trolls. Specifically, for instance, I have expressed interest in the writings of Nick Land and Curtis Yarvin (Moldbug); I recently hosted a podcast with psychologist Diana Fleischman that included discussion of controversial topics such as “human biodiversity” (some say this is a euphemism for racism and some say it’s an empirical reality). Obviously not the usual talking points for a left-wing intellectual, but to be clear nobody is accusing me of writing or saying anything particularly impeachable. I did receive some very thoughtful concerns, however, so one goal of this post is to clarify at least one or two of the most fair and important criticisms I have received. This is a caring thing to do, and I still believe deeply in caring.

On the other hand, any culture of absolute kindness becomes a conservative system of unspoken violence insofar as painful truths get repressed and all participants become deformed over time. It is because I genuinely love my friends on the left that I am stepping up to publicly state, and seriously pursue the implications of, dozens of difficult questions we have basically had an unspoken pact to not speak about for perhaps decades now.

If you are one of my comrades on the left who is generally overexposed to human docility or illness, I must also warn you, caringly, that you might be alarmed or confused by what follows. Many of you are now accustomed to a particular script: comrade is “problematic,” group pulls moral alarm, comrade begs forgiveness and (even in the best of cases, not to mention the horror shows), comrade dies a little on the inside, group feels reassured comrade will do no harm, group grows old and gray wondering why they never changed the world. Well, I have seen this script performed too many times to play along any longer; over the past several years I think I have learned a thing or two about why our groups don’t change the world. One reason is that we punish our own for grappling with questions we pretend to understand but are in fact to fearful to seriously consider.

So at the same time this post will charitably respond to some left-wing critiques of my project, in the same breath I am going to unapolagetically push further outward on my perspective that so horrifies many of you. I will no longer fight rearguard battles against fearful and disingenuous people on the left who would rather condemn something than admit they don’t have the time to read and process it; but neither am I here to cozy up with right-wing currents, as so many on the left assume of anyone who starts really speaking up and speaking out. I should like to become a worthy opponent of the smart wings of the new reaction, rather than merely pretend they are stupid; for I consider it a great embarrassment that the revolutionary left has yet to generate anything as genuinely interesting and creative as The Dark Enlightenment or Unqualified Reservations. If so-called left-acclerationism is our best response, then we’re in deep trouble (see below). Fortunately, I think we can do much, much better, but we won’t know until we try.

One of the key objections put forward by my more thoughtful critics from the left is the following. They argue that it is ethically and/or politically wrong to entertain a frame of debate in which racist implications appear likely. For example, my podcast with Diana is ethically or politically bad because by even discussing biological differences across groups, I am effectively increasing the perceived legitimacy of notions that can and will be used to support racist ideas or policies. I think this is a reasonable concern based on a plausible model of culture. Yet after reflecting on this for several years, I believe this idea is fatally mistaken in ways that have not yet been fully grasped or written down anywhere (that I know of, anyway). Here is a first, short attempt.

This idea that it is ethically or politically wrong to entertain a certain frame of debate is a fatal error in both the normative and empirical sense of that term. First, on the normative level, the idea of refusing to engage people with certain frames of reference dehumanizes people who have no access to anything other than those frames of reference. In short, this objection writes off large swaths of humanity as inhuman. I believe that this monopoly on humanity claimed by educated leftists is now, on net, a more violent and reactionary phenomenon than any legitimacy that would be given to racism by even talking with a proper racist (let alone decent people who merely have dicey or controversial positions). What many on the left ignore is that today large swaths of human beings are, through no fault of their own, socialized into right-wing and often racist frames. There exists a large number of people who are racist because they were sociologically doomed from birth to be racist (e.g. poor undeducated white kids in racist families and geographies are statistically doomed to be racist). Their humanity has been robbed from them (as it’s increasingly robbed from everyone).

It is my view that the revolutionary left is absolutely obligated to treat such people as the humans they truly are despite the dehumanization they have been subjected to. When the “humane” leftist says thou shall not engage with any racist “framing” of a conversation, they are saying that large swaths of essentially innocent people do not have the right to think, speak, or participate in public life, i.e. this position coldly writes off the past and continued dehumanization of literally millions of people. Leftists think they are being radically humane, guarding the last line of defense against the collapse of human equality, but the horrifying mistake nobody is willing to reflect on is that this is actually saying “keep those filthy animals out of the little circle of humanity I still get to enjoy with my educated friends.”

The genuinely humane, revolutionary-emancipatory position in contemporary culture is that we must dare to do the cognitively and emotionally terrifying, and dangerous, work of extending whatever last shreds of humanity we have, to everyone we possibly can. Therefore, the truly humane, caring, revolutionary gambit today ethically requires us to “engage with racist frames.” As a militant antifascist, I also believe in drawing lines across which absolute refusal or physical resistance becomes the correct move: to me, the clear line is if someone is actively engaged in violence or directly inciting it. I would not have a conversation with a neo-Nazi marching in my town throwing bottles at immigrants; I would, with my community, physically remove them from my town. All I am saying is that to draw this line of militant non-engagement at the level of “thinking and speaking with a racist frame” would require us to tell millions of people to go die in the cesspool they were born into. We have been effectively doing that for decades now, and not only does it fail, but it appears to engender or intensify novel mutations of racist politics (e.g., carefully non-explicit white “identitarian” movements, etc).

Continuing from the previous part, the second problem is as follows. This notion that it can be wrong, a priori, to consider certain frames of reference is a grave error in the practical or strategic sense as well, because to cast off so many people as inhuman casts off all of the humans we would need to change anything. It empirically dooms the left to never achieve the fundamental transformations we claim to be fighting for. If you listen to smart people on the right, they are currently laughing their way to the end of humanity as the left continues to push deeper and deeper into the mistakes we are actively refusing to learn from. It is very difficult for the few revolutionary leftists still alive to confront this, because it’s genuinly so vertiginous and horrifying that it really approaches what is cognitively and emotionally unsurvivable for genuinely caring people: there are at least some objective reasons to believe the human species may be genuinely crossing the threshold at which exponentially increasing technological efficiency makes the absolute end of humanity an objective and irreversible empirical reality. I think it’s debatable where we are at in that process, but it seems undeniable this question is now genuinely at stake and I simply don’t see a single person on the revolutionary left seriously considering this with the radical honesty it requires.

If folks like Srnicek and Williams and the “post-capitalism” types are the best the radical left has to offer on this front, I’m very sorry but we’re in serious trouble. No disrespect to those folks, they are all very good and smart people. But that is exactly the problem. A really profound problem nobody on the left wants to consider is that being a “good person” imposes psychological constraints on your most basic capacities to think and express yourself honestly. To understand this, we need to take a little historical detour.

Recall that capitalist society only emerged and grew on hypocrisy as the standard mode for cognitively and emotionally managing the necessity of having to brutally exploit each other to survive. This hypocrisy is what the word “bourgeois” means, and it is nothing less than the naturalized lifestyle of everyone who qualifies as a “good person” in modernity. Because living as a human being under capitalism requires hypocrisy, being empirically correct about what is happening and how the world functions (science) as well as interpersonally adequate to each other (what is called “caring,” or saying/doing what helps specific other people in specific moments) are mutually exclusive to a substantial degree. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown with several years of research that people who identify with the political left are disproportionately interested in “care” as a value; conservatives have a more multi-dimensional “palette” of moral foundations). To be clear, I am in fact deeply interested in the value of care, which is one reason I find myself sociologically on the left-wing of political culture. The unique challenge I don’t see anybody on the radical left seriously confronting is how our committment to care comes with the cost of certain systematic errors we happily ignore by dishonestly repeating over and over that we ignore them because we “care.” The issue here is that, it is programmed into the nature of a capitalist bourgeois society that to pursue unlimited “care” means that you objectively do not care about changing reality. This is because changing something as complex as “society” requires an extremely sophisticated empirical rigor deeply at odds with the care we also need to exercise in order to cooperatively change things together as diverse human beings. How to achieve the optimal balance of these genuinely contradictory tendencies is, in my view, one of the million-dollar questions for any serious revolutionary political thought today.

(An aside. The first and most stupendous person to see all of this in the early stages of capitalist modernity, who so clearly saw the doomed destiny of any society organized on hypocrisy, that he preferred to sacrifice his public “goodness” to produce monuments of honesty so outrageous he hoped they would raze the hypocritical order altogether, was, of course, Rousseau. Now, Rousseau did not squash the rise of bourgeois hypocrisy, but he had demonstrable effects in generating the modern revolutionary left tradition as we know it, from the French Revolution to Fanon and beyond. There are many good critiques of Rousseau, but if there is one example of how a sincere individual can craft a life that contributes to genuinely collective, world-historical waves of revolutionary political change, it is surely Rousseau. If this aside does not help you to see the world-historical difference between my own perspective and the neo-reaction, then it is unlikely any other citations ever will.)

In my view, this tradeoff between being correct about how the world works and caring for each other enough that we can cooperatively change it in the direction of peace and abundance for all—this is perhaps the most vexing and urgent puzzle for a genuine revolutionary left today. Yet remarkably I am not aware of a single person genuinely risking themselves on solving it, so I’m going to try. At present I am working on understanding the mechanisms whereby such an important problem has somehow been so stubbornly invisible to so many of us for so long. My wager is that we if we can truly understand the mechanisms of our own blindness, we will find pathways to the holy grail of the revolutionary left tradition: the flourishing of all human beings in peace and abundance, immediately, without recourse to all of the right-wing solutions that get raised in direct response to the left’s willful neglect of exactly this impasse.

It is because of this tradeoff between being correct and caring that I have recently become interested in what I have been referring to as the “smart” right-wing. Many people are concerned that my recent interest in intelligence means that I’ve become an IQ elitist or something. On the contrary, I am keenly suspicious of the politics of high-IQ subcultures, precisely because I know there is a trade-off between being correct and caring. Because we care about each other, there are certain things we refuse to see or else refuse to tell each other about what is really true. That’s fine, and perhaps a hard constraint of the types of beings we are on the radical left. But “smart” far-right people, who do not give a fuck about how people feel, they might just be the only ones capable of telling us those truths we need to process if we are ever going to have a sufficent command on reality to generate the systemic transformations we believe in. But at the same time, I am highly skeptical that the evacuation of care is a viable political project, because warmth is a condition of life for we creatures who require the sun to live, we creatures who are literally composed of a once-exploded star. I think right-accelerationists are wagering on the possibility that, if technologically super-charged hypercapitalism is understood correctly (hence the call to minimize care), that is objectively the most likely path for the possibility of surviving, perhaps into the becoming of something post-human.

For instance, a remarkable feature of Nick Land’s current writing is his obsession with coldness; I have never read anyone who so conscientiously endorses the absolute evacuation of care as a political project. Many on the left find this so evil they are resolutely insisting that if one so much as speaks his name with even one non-negative adjective in the same sentence, that very act is enough to force the speaker out of the publicly defined circle of “good humans” into that outside zone of cast-off inhumanity (consider that Land’s handle is @outsideness), via the same intellectual-social process I described above. If we self-servingly cast off human beings as if they are sub-human, we cannot then feign surprise and indignation if they say, “OK then! I’ll go off to become one with the superintelligent eugenically produced cyborg overloads you’ll be enslaved by in a couple of generations and I will laugh my ass off all the way to the singularity!” That’s the vibe I get when I browse Nick Land’s ongoing work, and when I look at the objective reality of runaway global finance and the tech sector, it does not seem implausible that something like this could potentially be underway. Of course I find that horrifying, which is why I am calling absolute bullshit on the people who say that it’s “too evil to engage.” On the contrary, it’s too alarming not to engage.

The more evil you think someone is, the greater should be your concern to ensure there is not the slightest chance they understand something better than you. If they are so evil, and they understand even one tiny thing you don’t, perhaps they are off using that edge in knowledge to engineer you out of existence. This suggests to me that when people say, “intellectual engagement with person X is prohibited,” what they are actually saying is “we are so afraid they might be part of the superintelligent cyborg army coming to enslave us that, even if they are literally preparing to, we do not want to know about it, even if there is a chance that we can still stop them!” And this is where I get off the train to nowhere, for this is where moderate respectable leftism (including most currently existing “radical” variants) converges with the most insiduous and cowardly conservatism. If there is some chance that hyperintelligent cyborgs are preparing to overtake humanity once and for all, because there is some chance that for generations now they have been operating on a model of the world we made it our pact to never consider, then I’m going to take a real look. Not everyone has to be comfortable doing so themselves, but at this point I think that any honest, decent, thinking being on the radical left will at least allow me to try.

I believe that currently, a dirty little secret on the the left is that for some people, the “left” is an agreement to protect each other’s right to look away from the most horrifying and potentially tragic realities of planetary life today, to (implicitly) secure amongst ourselves the last bits of interpersonal warmth available on the planet, agreeing to allow the rest of humanity’s descent into irreversible coldness. It helps to explain why, if you even approach these issues with the slightest indication of analytical coldness, you have to be ejected from the warmth cartel, for ejecting such existential threats is a condition of its survival. But I believe it has always been the vocation of the revolutionary left, properly understood, to risk its own survival on deploying just enough analytical coldness to engineer the unique machine that would take as an input the left’s unique material resource (warmth or energy via care) and produce as an output non-linear, systemic dynamics the ultimate equilibrium state of which would be peace and abundance for all. What that machine looks like is the question, and this is only a formal statement to illustrate the revolutionary left position today as an engineering problem. There are many reasons that have been adduced as to why such a machine cannot exist, and I do not pretend to offer responses to them here. I am only suggesting that any revolutionary left today, worthy of the name, would need to “solve for X,” as it were. The point of the engineering metaphor is not that everybody in the revolutionary movement will need to be an engineer, not at all; the point is only to show that any left-revolutionary project, to succeed, will have to solve this engineering problem.

What does this mean for revolutionary politics, in plain conversational terms? By putting all of our eggs in the basket of care and kindness, the radical left is now suffering from an engineering crisis it does not have enough engineers to even notice. In short, making revolution is a complex practical problem we are not solving because we are now generations deep in a long-term strategy of prohibiting people who are good at high-level problem solving but bad at being polite. Not to mention people who are good at creative and social openness, but bad at obeying rules. Thinkers of the respectable-radical left, people such as Paul Mason or Srnicek and Williams are selling a hope of technological super-abundance, but they are too sweet to tell any of their left comrades that all of the people you would need to actually produce that super-abundance are off building hyper-exploitative super-capitalism in part because they once went to an activist meeting and everyone treated them like fascists. To bring this back to anti-capitalist basics, the reason left post-capitalist thinkers don’t reflect much on such little problems as this one is because selling books is as mutually exclusive with truth-telling, in the short run, as is being a “nice person.” Hence the need for a fundamentally anti-bourgeois revolutionary intellectual culture cold enough to seek all of the darkest truths, but still warm enough not to betray the calling of solidarity. I’m not saying the left should start worshipping cold analytical power; all I’m saying is that if we genuinely believe in the necessity of changing the world, a revolutionary culture would have to be at least minimally hospitable to a minimal number of people who have knowledge of how complex things work and how they break, and people with the traits and inclinations to maneuver among diverse others. Both types of people are effectively prohibited from those who currently define radical progressive politics. Contemporary radical left culture is now so fully doubled-down on the wager of kindness over intelligence and creativity, that I am afraid it is almost vacuum-sealed against learning why it might be on the verge of extinction. I am writing this, and will continue writing to this effect, on the last-ditch possibility there exist other people out there, somewhere, who can see in this something more important than a moral offense.

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Cite this post: RIS Citation BibTeX Entry

Murphy, Justin. 2017. "On turning left into darkness," (April 24, 2017).