The new ideological fractures

The formal structure of paranoid leftism (why there is no such thing as a noble error)

How choosing personal psychological comfort over empirical accuracy will doom you and your friends to oblivion.

People who want to think, write, or act outside of what is perceived as normal within currently consituted left-wing circles are now commonly talked about as possible fascist sympathizers. Typically, if you drill down into what is being said exactly, they are not accused of being fascists, they are accused of not clearly enough differentiating themselves from fascism, to a degree that exceeds the currently established expectations of what anti-fascism is believed to look like. When you drill down, the root of the problem (and sometimes admittedly) is reputation: “I know you’re not a fascist but these other people will wonder, ergo I must disavow you as inadequately anti-fascist.”

The problem is that this model of changing the culture is premised on the willful acceptance and promotion of incorrect judgments. Contemporary left culture is premised on the belief that you can change the world through noble mistakes. But as a rule, you cannot change the world for the better by agreeing to make mistakes. You will either fail to change anything because you are operating in a fantasy land, or you will make the world much worse as you try to forcibly deform it around your mistakes. There is no such thing as a noble error. Every error or mistaken judgment that is tolerated or promoted in left culture as “solidarity,” will directly and demonstrably lead to a decreased probability of achieving equality and freedom.

As I have tried to make this argument in the past but typically to closed ears, the purpose of this post is to demonstrate the problem in the clearest, most demonstrable and undeniable fashion, using some basic concepts from my background as a social scientist. Basically, the issue is that for human beings errors are unavoidable, but there are different types of errors and whether we like it or not we make choices about which types of errors we are more or less willing to accept before acting on a judgment. Even more usefully, we can generate some predictions about future outcomes based on which types of errors we decide to be comfortable with. Currently, left culture is deeply invested in reducing one type of error while it is almost infinitely comfortable with a different type of error. As I try to show below, the only possible result is that membership in the organized radical left must ultimately drop to zero, a process I believe is currently underway. I am also able to generate some predictions about the temporal shape of this extinction event that I fear is currently underway. I believe that soon this post will not even be necessary, as the predicted outcomes I outline below come true; but as these outcomes have not yet fully arrived, it is my wager that posts such as this might be enough to make the currently doomed strategies collapse once and for all.

I will focus on the particular example of anti-fascism because it offers an attractively simple and well-known structure of left/right group differentiation. But everything I say here can be applied to a variety of attitudes and behaviors dominant in left culture.

Two different types of error and the example of anti-fascism

Scientists distinguish between Type 1 errors (false positives, you think something exists when it really doesn’t) and Type 2 errors (false negatives, you think something is not there when it really is). If you are one of those people who genuinely believe there is no objective reality outside of our interpretations of it, buckle up.

Whenever we are confronted with a question about something in the world, there is some risk of both types of error. If you maybe just saw a snake in the bush, there is some probability you are right and some probability you are wrong. And you have to decide what to do, so what’s at stake here is not some obscure scientific theory: I am talking about basic unavoidable challenges of being a human. We can either do them intelligently and act on the world effectively (dodge snakes when they are there and relax when they are not there), or we can pretend we don’t have to grapple with them and basically sign-up to be helpless victims of our environment (never really run and never really relax, but just accept you’re probably going to get eaten by a python eventually so whatever).

This scenario is exactly analogous to the problem of anti-fascism. If there is someone in our movement for collective equality who is actually sympathetic to fascism or likely to say/do things that help fascism, then we probably won’t want to work with them. This is reasonable enough, and it is widely seen as a serious and urgent issue. But there is also another problem, which is symptomatically not discussed as very urgent or serious, which is that you will sometimes incorrectly refuse to work with someone who actually, on net, would help your team get to where it’s trying to go. People on the left like to act like this is not a genuine problem of judgment; it’s just how things are, there are norms, if someone wants to break those norms, then they can’t work with left groups, “it’s not up to me.” But that’s what Sartre called bad faith. It is up to you, it’s unavoidably up to everyone in the struggle for political change to decide who you will and who you will not work with. Everyone on the radical left has to make individual and group judgments that carry an unavoidable risk of being false, either failing to eject forces of harm or ejecting forces of good. You can also easily see how this basic structure is observed in many other particular questions of how to conduct ourselves in trying to produce social change.

So we think we might have seen a snake—we think someone in our groups will do more harm to our project than good—but we can’t know for sure. The idea that person X is basically good and would be a net contributor to collective liberation if we worked togetehr, we will call that the “null hypothesis” (usually denoted H0). The idea that person X would be a net detractor of the project for collective liberation if allowed to remain in the group, and should therefore be labeled as outside the project for public relations purposes, we will call the “alternative hypothesis” (usually denoted H1). For any person, there must exist some distribution that defines the probability of each scenario being true. Imagine it looks like this.

A visual representation of the trade-off between Type 1 and Type 2 errors

The overlap of the two distributions reflects a trade-off between false positive and false negatives. If you are really concerned to make one type of error as unlikely as possible, you increase the probability of the other. We can never know for sure, so the idea of being exactly right in every case is not possible. So we have to decide the threshold of confidence we need to exclude someone from our group. Are we comfortable with a 5% chance of being incorrect? A 50% chance of being incorrect? In the graph above, “any mean” refers to how often you are willing to be wrong after operating on your judgment over a large number of cases. To decide how comfortable we should be with false positives and false negatives, we need to have a sense of the costs of each type of error.

What is the real cost of an undetected fascist being in our group?

What is the real cost of ejecting someone who could and would help make revolution?

Now, these are very interesting and highly debatable questions. Future revolutionaries will need to devote themselve to answering these questions. At present, the main point to understand is that contemporary left culture does not think, let alone debate, these questions. Current left culture operates on the assumption the cost of a false negative is very high and that the cost of false positives is very low. It doesn’t take a social scientist to predict what will happen: you will be very effective in making sure no Nazis are hiding in your groups, but you will also ensure that many good people are pushed out.

The non-linear temporal dynamics of paranoid leftism

So what will happen if we operate on this set of assumptions? Let’s say we start out with a nice sizeable number of anti-fascist comrades, 100, say. At first, maybe you find some people on the street who kind of look like Nazis so you tell them they can’t be in your movement and they go home very sad. These people turn out to be good people, so in fact you lost a few potential supporters but your group is still 100 people, so no big deal. Those poor guys are expendable, an unfortunate cost of your noble responsibility to keep the streets clean. But a few weeks later someone accuses one of your own member of having fascist sympathies, so the group decides to eject them. Turns out they were a secret member of the KKK, so everyone is delighted at their good judgment! You decide that everyone should be even more on guard to fascists, so you increase your allowable Type 1 error rate even higher. So the next week you kick out two members who later turn out to be good people who would have done much more good than harm had they stayed in the group. Here, the power of your group decreases concretely, due to your errors, but only a little bit. It decreases by a quantity of 2 power units, say, the lost power of those two people. Some concerns about this are raised within the group, but everyone decides it’s just an unfortunate byproduct of keeping the group safe. This is where you start to get non-linear effects that very few radicals want to think about.

Now, some of the other good people in the group realize there is a decent chance I will become a false positive. Realizing this, they either leave the group out of very reasonable fear of being unfairly and incorrectly maligned, or if leaving is not an option (if, for instance, their identity and relationships are dependent on the radical left milieu), what will they do? They will do everything they can to find a fascist in their midst, to demonstrate to their group their fearless and passionate anti-fascist credibility! Fortunately, since they believe nothing bad really happens if we incorrectly diagnose a good person as fascist, protecting their anti-fascist credibility is not even a very taxing task: just take your best guess among any other member, if they are a fascist you’re a vigilant hero and if they are not, well that’s just an unavoidable byproduct of you valiantly keeping the group safe. Well, to see the outcome of this situation, consider the following figure, which plots the predicted size of your noble left project as a function of your comfort with false positives. The inflection point where the size of your group rapidly plunges toward zero can be thought of as that false-positive error-rate at which good members have good reason to fear being incorrectly labeled fascist. As soon as that happens, the whole project is doomed.

The hypothesized non-linear effect of over-zealous enemy identification on movement size

Paranoid leftism can be formally defined as the pathological insistence on sub-optimally high Type 1 error rates.

There is only one non-obvious extension I would like to make. I believe the internet exacerbates the problem of under-estimating the cost of false-positives. Why? For the simple reason that the internet increases the number of people one can communicate and establish affiliations with, and there are a very small number of fascists relative to the number of good people, all of whom we have more or less equal and direct access to. Radicals have to remember that everything they say and do has effects not only on every individual we interact with, but also, rapidly, on the large number of individuals that individual interacts with. So reputational effects cut both ways: ejecting good people as inadequately anti-fascist loses trust among many people who simply do not inform you about it. If you accidentally eject one good person for being inadequately anti-fascist, you will lose the trust of the much larger group of people who trust that person, but who just happen to be sociologically distant from you. Therefore paranoid anti-fascism pretends to be about preserving trust with oppressed people but it’s really about avoiding difficult conversations with socially proximate actors. False positives patently destroy trust toward the very notion of organizing radical social change. Most people in the wealthy countries come to see radical groups as ridiculous losers with no credibility, in part because we run around eating our own in ways that anyone other than us can see to be stupid and insane.

The paranoid leftist values their own discomfort with impurity and their own reputation within a small miliue more than the prospect of generating large-scale, emancipatory, cultural dynamics tending toward the dissolution of fascism and the promotion of egalitarianism and abundance. The neo-Nazi is a fascist of the short-run; the paranoid leftist is a fascist of the long-run. It is a way of being so concerned with signaling the appearance of opposition to Bad People that you would rather see the power of your own movement decrease than assume the responsibility of simply explaining one’s reasoned judgments in difficult conversations with a small number of people who might be “concerned.”

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Cite this post: RIS Citation BibTeX Entry

Murphy, Justin. 2017. "The formal structure of paranoid leftism (why there is no such thing as a noble error)," http://jmrphy.net/blog/2017/04/24/the-formal-structure-of-paranoid-leftism/ (May 17, 2017).