I don’t want your millions, Mister—The Almanac Singers, “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister”
I don’t want your diamond ring
All I want is the right to live, Mister
Give me back my job again
On Saturday, September 19th, artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd unveiled a “Climate Clock” in New York City. Displayed on the famous Metronome art installation in Manhattan’s Union Square, the clock counts down the time left to curb greenhouse emissions enough to ensure Earth has a 67% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. The clock is the latest in a lengthy string of public spectacles concocted with the intention of “drawing attention” to climate change—there have been several previous iterations of the project, most notably in Oslo and Berlin, and the umbrella organization behind the project, Beautiful Rising, boasts itself as an “international network of artist-activist trainers whose mission is to make grassroots movements more creative and more effective.” Created in conjunction with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Climate Policy (credited as an “organizational partner” on the project’s about page), the installation is, in effect, a crossover effort between the city government, the NGO/non-profit sphere, and private capital—Stephen Ross, chairman of real-estate firm Related Companies (which commissioned the Metronome sculpture in 1999) issued a statement claiming that “this initiative will encourage everybody to join us in fighting for the future of our planet.”
The chances of this particular symbol sticking around as an object of discussion in the hyper-accelerated discourse machine are relatively low. Still, it’s worth picking apart the ways in which it encapsulates so much of the climate discourse specifically and the progressive social justice project more generally. It embodies a rising obsession with “structural” social issues, the individuation of responsibility for policies beyond any one person’s control, and widespread dissemination of guilt as a disciplinary mechanism that serves the electoral interests of our “philanthropic” elites.
The Elites, The Cultural Left, and “Structural Issues”
Our elites’ core ideological commitments are those of progressive neoliberalism, and their allegiances in both word and deed are to the hallmarks of the cultural left’s project of the past several decades: environmental-, racial-, and gender-inclusive justice. I’m using “the elites” in this piece as a broad umbrella term to refer to the contemporary alliance between capitalists in certain industries (especially tech, e-commerce, and finance), media figures, and professional-class artists/activists (especially those employed in the sphere of the “NGO-Industrial Complex”) who constitute the most visible beneficiaries and proponents of the current progressive neoliberal order. Michael Lind refers to this group as the “overclass,” or “a new ruling class of technocrats or bureaucrats, whose income, wealth, and status is linked to their positions in large, hierarchical organizations, (i.e., nonprofits, government agencies, industrial and finance firms, and so on).” The language of the cultural left, which originated in the countercultural movements of the 1960s, was disseminated from college campuses into HR departments, and the elites have since adopted it and turned it the standard, globalized form of political expression. This manifests in what Adolph Reed Jr. describes as:
[T]he identity politics frame, (which acts as) a vehicle for a bourgeois militancy that doesn’t require critical intellectual engagement…this frame fits nicely with a corporate multiculturalism by providing a diverse professional and middle management workforce with a shared set of thin, curriculum-based symbols of group ‘cultures,’ an essentialist checklist enabling coworkers to imagine their own uniqueness…Adolph Reed Jr., Ethnic Studies and Pluralist Politics, from Class Notes, 176
The core focus of left wing activism is no longer that of working-class emancipation—it completely abandoned any semblance of a workers’ movement decades ago (the history of which River Page wonderfully outlines in a recent TwinkRev article). Christopher Lasch documented this tendency extensively, where the authentic transformational desire of the “old left” (embodied by the civil rights struggle “waged in deadly earnest in the South”) was rechanneled into narcissistic radicalism by students and activists (especially in organizations like the SDS) intent on becoming celebrities through pointless militancy and a hyper-fixation on identitarian performativity. He writes that ‘60s radicalism’s “delusion that street theater represented the newest form of guerilla warfare helped to ward off an uneasy realization that it represented no more than a form of self-promotion, by means of which the media starts of the left brought themselves to national attention with its concomitant rewards.”1Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 102
The ideological progeny of that movement have gone on to found the institutions that make up the left today. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of any working-class constituency in the United States, the left, seeking institutional power, slyly entered the elite sphere and sold them on an aesthetically progressive project which operates on the aforementioned “identity politics frame”—a histrionic fixation on individual grievances based on arbitrary ascriptive identity categories, filtered through a loud, bombastic style which is averse to nuance or debate. This frame was—to the delight of the technocratic elites—entirely compatible with their class project, which has manifested as a cogent drive to channel money into “philanthropic” causes that address “structural issues” in America. From Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pledging to invest $2 billion to help Amazon reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, to Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey giving $10 million to Boston University’s newly-created Center for Antiracist Research (headed by celebrity race scholar Ibram X. Kendi), to the MacArthur Foundation pledging $125 million in grants to “historically marginalized populations,” there is an imperative for the elites now, more than ever, to portray themselves as socially-conscious philanthropists intent on curing social ills. Indeed, this has been reflected in the fact that “even before the recent flood of Silicon Valley’s billions into the… philanthropy ledger,” liberal philanthropic foundations outnumbered conservative ones ten-to-one, and their distributive project (encapsulated by “decolonization activist” Edgar Villanueva’s recent statement about the necessity for philanthropic institutions to “dismantle white supremacy and support healing across our communities”) is ostensibly intended to address mortal problems that are simply too urgent to ignore—especially those centered on the cultural left’s trademark preoccupations: climate change, race, and gender identity. Despite their seemingly well-intentioned focus on these pressing issues, however, this discursive focus on this omnipresent “structural” quality is indicative of a far more sinister tactic.
The Economy of Guilt and “Depoliticization”
The outward-facing displays of this philanthropic project (a prime example being the “Climate Clock”), betray the true intentions behind the constant focus on “structural issues,” since they work to absolve the elites who are responsible for getting us into these crises in the first place—while simultaneously redirecting the blame onto ordinary Americans. In fact, as John Palfrey, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, made clear in a recent public statement, all of us must “challenge our thinking, as individuals and institutions, that has brought us to this point of reckoning.” In effect, the purpose of these displays, statements, and public performances is to individuate the responsibility for these spectral, abstract social dynamics from the elites onto the homogenous American masses (with divisions in economic class being purposefully left out of the equation). This is especially clear in the discourse around climate change—in Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher writes that “environmental catastrophe features in late capitalist culture only as a kind of simulacra, its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system.”2Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 18 Indeed, the “Climate Clock” is a perfect simulacrum of environmental discourse—neoliberal capitalism ingesting its own surface-level critique (“If we don’t recycle more, we’re all going to die!”) and vomiting it out as dreadful, apocalyptic spectacle intended only to instill a sense of guilt into its observers.
The clock theme fits into a general symbolic trend of “computation” present among the signifiers of the disciplinary climate narrative, as another one of the tools which has become a staple in the climate discourse has been the Ecological Footprint Calculator. Created by the Global Footprint Network, an international nonprofit, the calculator quantifies your carbon footprint based on a variety of questions (e.g. “What material is your house constructed with?” and “How much trash do you generate?”), informing you at the end of the quiz of how many Earths humanity would need if everyone “lived like you,” and tallying your consumption habits by category (mobility, shelter, food, etc.). By using the language of individual consumption and framing climate change as something contingent solely on lifestyle choices, these supposedly progressive, informative computational tools (the clock and the calculator) instead act as disciplinary ones, imbuing us with a sense of guilt for our personal “role” in desecrating the environment. Environmental scholar Michael F. Maniates calls this process “depoliticization,” where “a privatization and individualization of responsibility for environmental problems shifts blame from State elites and powerful producer groups to more amorphous culprits like ‘human nature’ or ‘all of us’.”3Michael F. Maniates, Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?, from Global Environmental Politics. Volume 1 – Issue 3, 43 These tactics of depoliticization are certainly not relegated solely to the sphere of climate change, they’re present in every avenue of cultural warfare.
In its 2019 “Climate Pledge,” Amazon called upon its customers to take measures to curb waste, offering information on how to trade in products or recycle electronic devices. In the wake of the recent George Floyd protests, Uber demanded that its customers delete the app if they “tolerate racism,” while offering an infographic with ACLU information on how to safely protest. In September, dozens of corporations, including British Petroleum, Citi Bank, Google, and Microsoft, signed a public letter calling upon Britain’s government to support making it easier for people to legally change gender. Perhaps the particular dynamic of today’s corporate cultural assault can be described as “depoliticization through hyper-politicization,” or a mystification process where previously apolitical (or seemingly apolitical) entities have adapted in order to cater affectively to their consumers, taking up a side on whatever raging partisan debate of the day to form a kind of emotional bond with their prospective customers, while entirely obscuring their actual operational mechanisms and social roles. Naturally, the end goal of this effort is the consumption of products and services. Byung-Chul Han describes this as a process of “digital voting,” wherein the “digital agora…polling place and market, polis and economy, collapse into one—voters behave like consumers”4Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm, 69—and consumers like voters. Of course, this can only occur in a scenario of complete civic disempowerment, where neoliberalism has corroded “the political” to the point where most people have entirely lost trust in civic institutions, instead consuming from market entities in order to abdicate the guilt instilled in them by those very same entities for largely imaginary sins—i.e., using Uber as an expression of “antiracism,” since deleting it would mean that you’re in the same camp as the racists.
The only “dimension” of justice missing from these multinational corporations’ forays onto cultural terrain is economic class, of course, as any discussion of labor dynamics would paint a very different picture than the one carefully crafted by their HR departments and social media teams. This is more than social justice rhetoric being “hijacked” by the rich and powerful, it is the full confluence of progressive (or left-wing) social ideology and neoliberal capital, manifesting in a new cultural revolution. In essence, these initiatives—produced by the elites through charities, nonprofits, and public art projects—serve to obfuscate the very role of those in power, mystify class dynamics, and bludgeon ordinary people with the immaterial “structural” forces of “climate apocalypse,” “white privilege,” “heteronormative patriarchy,” etc. These are mythic, ill-defined, and unfalsifiable discursive techniques that serve the interests of a rapidly expanding progressive elite, but it’s also important to analyze exactly how those interests manifest in the sphere of electoral politics.
“Vote like the world depends on it – because it does!”
Ironically enough, the process of “depoliticization” doesn’t only function as a driver of market consumption—it also has a distinctly political dimension in the neutered sphere of electoralism (which has arguably become just another facet of the market). I’m referring to the very explicit and militant push on the part of our elites to get us to come out in droves and vote for Joe Biden on November 3rd. From Spotify launching an initiative to boost voter engagement, which includes an informational “hub” featuring podcast episodes like “The Labor Struggle is Real Queer,” and “Decolonizing Climate Activism,” to Snapchat helping more than 1 million users register to vote, especially in red states, there has been a clear effort targeting millennial and Gen-z voters, who tend to be more progressive on key ideological issues.
The attempt to obfuscate political dynamics, by presenting these efforts as some kind of innocent civic intervention of the private sector into the public, shows the extent to which progressive neoliberalism has become naturalized and presented as the default political mode of the elites. They might not tell you explicitly who to vote for, but the mantra of the day, which is some variation of “Vote like the world depends on it – because it does!,” betrays the implicit “mortal threat” of climate change, which has been a hallmark issue of the Democratic Party for decades. After all, the most effective partisan disciplinary tactic of all is the notion that if the Democrat doesn’t win, the world will literally come to an end as we know it. In this case, the Democrat is the same man who fought tooth and nail for bank deregulation, voted for the Iraq War, voted to gut welfare, supported NAFTA and the TPP, and, yes, alongside president Obama, helped make natural gas a larger share of America’s energy use, so the case is a particularly shaky one. Unfortunately, it’s not only the Democratic establishment peddling the idea that Joe Biden is the only person standing between civilization and mass extinction, the left have also played a central role in legitimating the narrative, and the project of the left as it exists today is completely indistinguishable from the project of the progressive elites (which is, of course, that of the Democrats). Well known philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler donated repeatedly to (now-vice presidential) candidate Kamala Harris’s senate and presidential campaigns, and Marxist academic and activist Angela Davis stated recently that Harris’s inclusion on the Democratic ticket made the election “more palatable,” clarifying that “it’s a feminist approach to be able to work with those contradictions,” referring to Harris’s aggressive history as a California prosecutor. In May, Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor and publisher at Jacobin Magazine, wrote a New York Times op-ed assuring readers that he believes “having Joe Biden in the White House would be far less damaging to most workers than another four years of Donald Trump […] every poor and working person in America, along with every socialist, would be better off butting heads with a White House filled with centrist Democrats than one filled with Trump appointees.” In a Guardian op-ed from August, Nathan J. Robinson, editor of Current Affairs magazine, unwaveringly stated that he “hoped” Joe Biden would win in a landslide, later qualifying his support with a reluctant sigh: “Biden is a conservative Democrat who supported the Iraq war and helped to build the contemporary system of mass incarceration, which is why those of us on the left are so deeply unenthused about having to drag ourselves to the polls for him.” Ironically enough, OR books (one of the leading left-wing publishers of the “Bernie movement”) is the official publishing partner of Beautiful Rising, the aforementioned activist organization behind the Climate Clock. It also happens to be the publisher of Robinson’s American Monstrosity, a blueprint for how “we can banish the monster from our midst in the coming November election,” referring, of course, to Donald Trump. This relationship perfectly encapsulates the project of the left today—a covert operation to manufacture consent for the Democratic Party, while still feigning aesthetic opposition to it. Progressive elites in Democrat-run cities (like New York), find this dynamic convenient, and greenlight projects (like the Climate Clock) to put a radical veneer on a profoundly corrosive neoliberal platform, relying on support from private capital (like Stephen Ross, the aforementioned real estate mogul behind The Related Companies, who financed the Climate Clock) for monetary backing. Naturally, commentators like Robinson would deny the function that he and his peers fulfill, but whether they desire it or not, their outspoken support for Biden and their histrionic denunciations of Trump as some uniquely horrible fascist merely reify and boost the electoral project of the Democratic Party. The nature of this alliance is disturbing but not at all surprising, and the Climate Clock is a particularly telling example of how its ugliness manifests in public life.
Inevitably, leftist media figures’ admissions of electoral defeat after a contentious Democratic primary are followed by a teary-eyed pronouncement that the left has “won the battle of ideas,” and that next time, the left-wing candidate will be sure to clinch victory since everyone has awoken to the power and potential of progressive politics. Erin McCarley, in a Sanders campaign post-mortem for Counterpunch, issues the boilerplate assessment: “A quick glance at the Bernie movement shows that we had the popular ideas all along. We had the masses of people at our rallies. We had the energy, the enthusiasm, the youth, the broad-based racial and religious coalitions, the working-class movements, the labor unions, the nurse’s unions, the teacher’s unions, and the massive volunteer base. The Sanders campaign created the space for […] a diverse and inclusive people-powered movement to grow and thrive under one electoral umbrella.” It seems that the only thing the Sanders campaign didn’t achieve was winning actual political power. In their excellent examination of the Sanders 2020 campaign’s shortcomings for American Affairs, Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey deliver a stunningly sharp blow to the willful utopianism of the progressive left: “the point of (Sanders’s) 2020 campaign was not merely to win some ill-defined “struggle” or “battle”—it was to win power. That endeavor was an unambiguous failure. Instead, it would appear that the sleepy and confused Joe Biden was the one who presented an ideological vision more in sync with the desires of the Democratic primary electorate. In so doing, he in fact won the “battle”—while the activist Left succeeded only in preserving its own moral vanity, thereby derailing the greatest electoral opportunity for major social democratic reform likely to be seen in a generation.” In addition to preserving its moral vanity, the left also benefited materially from the Sanders 2020 campaign, especially considering the fact that it raised a boggling $211 million from working-class donations, which was channeled in a massive upward wealth transfer from working class supporters to elite-aspirant leftist campaign managers. His national campaign co-chair, Nina Turner, has since used her cut of campaign funds to found a consulting firm with other campaign alumni, dedicated to bringing in “marginalized voices across society” and to “raise the public consciousness.”
Perhaps it’s time to exit this movement, which is stuck in a cycle of ridiculous, bloated, utopian triumphalism whenever the candidate of the left is winning, followed by meek apologetics (coating unqualified support for the victor) after an electoral defeat. We should reject the identitarianism, the performative radicalism, the apocalypticism, and the disciplinary discursive frames forced upon us by the progressive elites and their mouthpieces in the spheres of media and culture—and build a new populism, removed from the existing institutions of the left, which have been proven to be inextricably tied to the bourgeois, elite political project that has been failing the American working class for decades. In the words of Malcom Kyeyune, “[workers] have abandoned the left parties because the left parties have abandoned them […] This is good news, at least for those of us with the courage and political will needed to help them free themselves of their so-called ‘betters’ […] We will not promise new masters and new yokes to live under, new aristocracies and ‘vanguards’ to subsidize, new cadres of people selling them moral sermons and sensitivity courses. We will promise them a chance at revenge.”