The Left are Hypercapitalists (no matter what they claim)
There are ways out, but will the Left take them?
Regardless of what any Leftist claims, the vast majority of them are secretly hypercapitalists. They may not even realize this. They may lash out at you for telling them this. But it is the truth. The values that the Left espouses ultimately go hand-in-hand with a kind of hypercapitalistic hellscape. And so, when I attempt to explain why I no longer identify myself with the Left, this is one part of the story.
Part 1: How the Left became Liberal
When I use Liberal here, I am not using it as the vague perjorative that many Leftists use it as. What I am referring to with "Liberal" is the school of political philosophy we call Liberalism. The school of Mill, Kant, Rawls, Dworkin, Raz, and others that grew out of the social contract theorists new social ontology.
While there are many elements of Liberal theories (neutralism, proceduralism, pluralism, subjective Rights, etc.), the core of Liberalism is autonomy. Two quick examples:
Joseph Raz in his work The Morality of Freedom:
One common strand in liberal thought regards the promotion and protection of personal autonomy as the core of the liberal concern.
A person is autonomous if he can become the author of his own life.
Bruce Ackerman in his work Social Justice and the Liberal State:
[Liberalism is] an individualistic political morality...concerned primarily with protecting and promoting the autonomy of individuals.
The Left has, by and large, not only adopted autonomy as a (the?) core good guiding its politics, but intensified it. Bodily autonomy is invoked to defend transgender rights, abortion, sex work, sexualities, etc. Perhaps the sex work debate is most readily obvious, since calls of "anti-moralism" tend to be the most explicit there (in my experience). Either one supports sex work because of bodily autonomy, or one opposes sex work in its current form because of the exploitation.
But note: "exploitation" and "domination" tend to be just indirect ways to affirm autonomy. They smuggle the value of "autonomy" in through the back door.
Sex work is "exploitative" because it frequently relies on women who have no other options. Of course, the implication is that if a well-off woman who could choose her own clients, etc. chose to engage in sex work, there would be nothing wrong. Bodily autonomy and all. There is no other moral principle at play, of course. Don't be a prude!
Of course, not every single person on the Left believes this. But the Left has become largely Liberal.
"Domination" similarly tends to be used to smuggle autonomy in through the back door. Domination refers to some situation in which there is an unequal distribution of power in society, leading some individuals to command others who must obey. That this is bad relies on one of three beliefs:
1. The affirmation that choosing one's own destiny/guiding one's own life is good.
In other words, unless we are describing domination as a brute fact (similar to "humans can't fly"), we are affirming autonomy. There is no autonomy for the dominated, no real choice in life, and therefore the system of domination is unjust. Welcome back to Liberalism.
2. That domination tends to lead to perverse incentive structures, and works against the common good.
I have discussed this before, but much of our society is caught up in deeply perverse incentive structures, with individuals and institutions being rewarded for acting in an antisocial manner. Smith discussed something similar in The Wealth of Nations, when he noted that while the interests of the laborer and landlord align with the general interest of society, the interests of the capitalist class do not, since:
the rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with the prosperity, and fall with the declension, of the society
This affirmation, of course, demands some substantive notion of the Good beyond autonomy. Perhaps one believes in a kind of productivism as Smith appears to endorse, but one can believe in any substantive notion of the Good life. (More on this later)
3. That domination precludes equality, and equality is good.
I don't need to tell you that visions of "equality" tend to be absurd and delusional. But what you may not grasp is that an affirmation of equality generally is an affirmation of autonomy at the end of the day. Perhaps Peter Westen said it best:
Equality is an empty vessel with no substantive content of its own. Without moral standards, it remains meaningless, a formula that can say nothing about how we should act.
Equality claims have begun to displace autonomy/liberty claims in much liberal scholarship, as autonomy/liberty are seen as being fairly inadequate concepts. But the problem of course is that equality is just as useless and usually reduces to autonomy in this scholarship. First, as Safranek said in The Myth of Liberalism:
The proponent of equality must justify his favored use of equality...against other possible meanings...And he cannot invoke the principle of equality because that is what is being disputed.
Constitutional scholar Kenneth Karst draws on Rawls (who identifies self-respect as "the main primary good" in his A Theory of Justice) and explicitly ties equality to autonomy. In his mind, the substantive core of the equal protection clause is that equal citizenship demands society treats all people with respect and dignity. For Karst, when individuals perceive an inequality as an index of their personal worth, their primary good of self-respect is damaged and diminished. (If this sounds like "Social Justice" to you, well,....yeah). Karst, who wrote on many issues of women's rights, argued that equal citizenship does not contain a specific right to contraceptives or abortion, but rather a "right to take responsibility for choosing one's own future".
The Supreme Court endorsed this rationale in Casey:
"The ability of women to participate equally in the economy and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives."
And so we have demonstrated that "domination", "exploitation", and "equality" are generally just ways to smuggle an affirmation of "autonomy" in. It is an attempt to be a Liberal, without admitting one's Liberalism. In the absence of any substantive theory of the Good, that is all the Left will amount to.
But okay. We have proven the Left are largely Liberals, but how does this prove that they are "hypercapitalists"? Seems like a rather bold claim that still hasn't been proven. Well my friend, we must look into what the impacts of autonomy are, and why they lead to this hypercapitalistic society.
Part 2: Acid Liberalism - Autonomy Dissolves Everything
I want to begin with a claim that may appear contradictory but is not: Collectivism is entirely compatible with alienation and atomization. It may even demand that atomization, but I do not have the space here to prove that. What I want to discuss here is not "individualism" vs. "collectivism", or "liberty" vs "tyranny", but rather embeddedness vs atomization. I have already discussed how, if "freedom" is to mean anything, "autonomy" is not a very substantive notion of it. So today, I want to look at how autonomy, "freedom", ends up leading to total atomization.
Autonomy and Equality demand total atomization. Universality, as well, demands total atomization (and so anyone who identifies the Left with some kind of "universalism" still endorses this atomization).
But why is this the case?
Autonomy demands atomization because any bond that is not chosen represents a limitation on one's free actions. I have been forced into accepting some situation. We see variants of this belief in calls for family abolition and "collectivizing" the youth: "They don't belong to anyone!!!" Furthermore, in the same way that one doesn't choose what family one is born into or what race one is, these things cannot have meaning if autonomy is our most core value. And if they cannot have meaning, we cannot identify with them, since (as Charles Taylor explains) how we identify/what we identify with, reflects the values we hold and what we perceive is meaningful. Any bonds that are not chosen must be dissolved. To identify with them is to appeal to some value outside of autonomy that must (at least in some case) overrule autonomy. And this cannot stand.
An interesting (and perhaps tragic) association with this is the "catching feelings" crowd. Effectively, "feelings" are seen as external to the Self, who is autonomous and must therefore remain detached from, and disengaged with, the world and the sentiments that arise upon contact with the world. Is it any surprise that the "don't catch feelings" crowd overlaps 100% with this Left/Liberal worship of "autonomy"? It shouldn't be. These two go hand in hand. This is the end result of holding autonomy as your chief good.
Equality demands atomization not only because it reduces to autonomy deep down (and therefore has the same issues as described just above), but because if inequality is perceived by an individual as an index of their personal worth, it limits their central good of self-respect. And you only need to watch one or two soap operas to understand how that ends up working. There can be no meaningful connections, no attachments, no bonds that might lead another to perceive an inequality ("They love A more than me") that would reflect an index of their personal self-worth.
And then universalism demands atomization because to truly be universal is to abandon particular bonds. Susan Wolf presents a rather intriguing argument regarding what she calls "Moral Saints". One of her two models, the Loving Saint, she identifies (loosely) with utilitarianism, and notes that it appears to lead to both a general decline in overall happiness as well as a kind of internal schizophrenia with regards to moral values/motivations vs. actions. The Loving Saint is someone who embraces all just as much as anyone else. Of course, while this sounds plenty nice, the Loving Saint would be a tortured and largely disliked individual. Imagine if your "best friend" treated every stranger they met the same way they treat you. You would not feel particularly important or special to them. It is the particularity of our relationships that makes them meaningful. Hugh LaFollette makes a powerful two-pronged argument along these lines, arguing that close personal relationships are prerequisites for the development of morally good people. And while he notes that there can be an interplay between universalism and particularity, few espouse that view.
And so, an affirmation of autonomy, equality, universalism, etc. almost always goes hand in hand with atomization, especially with the modern Left. The end result being a kind of collective where everyone is equally and totally alienated from each other. Where bonds are only chosen. Where nothing can be asked of you without your consent. Autonomy, equality, and universalism must dissolve all these bonds to eliminate domination.
When we hear about a focus on "consent" or "choice", what we are referring to is two alienated individuals deciding to establish a bond that may be revoked at any moment by one or the other, and which has no deeper significance than the desire of those two (or more) people. 99.9% of the "self-care" industry (lol) is effectively just a way to placate the inner emptiness of your heart when you lose those deep relationships with others and/or when relationships place demands on you that don't let you "have it all" and you become angry you were sold a lie (or assume your relationships are bad).
It is ironic that it is the marxists themselves who have brought to fruition Marx's famous claim:
All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind
Sadly, the Left remains mired in self delusion. And this is even more dangerous, because it is this self delusion that allows for atomization, and it is this atomization that naturally (and perhaps necessarily) fuels a hypercapitalistic system.
Part 3: The Crypto-Commodifiers
So why is atomization natural fuel for a hypercapitalistic system?
1. Capitalism and Atomization are two peas in a pod
As Mark Granovetter reports, Adam Smith tacitly claimed that truly competitive markets require social atomization.
George Stigler from his The Theory of Price:
"Economic relationships are never perfectly competitive if they involve any personal relationships between economic units"
“In order to have a highly industrialized or marketing life, you have to devise very superficial relationships for people.”
Now, of course, the complaint here will be that while capitalism demands atomization, atomization does not necessarily lead to capitalism. Right? No.
If we believe that autonomy is the core good in the world, then it is the final justification. It is the final arbiter of right/wrong. Something is good if it allows for individuals to express their autonomy, and bad if it does not. "Personal relationships", so far as they exist in a world that worships autonomy, only persist so long as the people in them want them to. In other words, at the bedrock of every personal relationship, every supposedly "non-commodified" connection, is utility. Everything is governed by the logic of the market and its central tenet: "value". There can be no "unconditional love". Everything is conditional, and it's conditioned on value. (Think: no fault-divorce)
And as Paul Verhaeghe notes in his work What about Me?, our modern ideology of autonomy/market logic leads to an odd paradox in which one is always expected to be a value-maximizer (hence self-care and the narratives of "liberation" or "living your best life") and yet presents such a dizzying array of choices that identity is almost never stable. First, if one is truly autonomous, why would one remain in a suboptimal situation? Get out of there! And if you do remain, it's your own fault, of course. You had the choice, and you chose not to. And second, presented with the immense complexity and dizzying array of superficial identity narratives, individuals are in a constant state of disorientation (think Bauman's "liquid modernity").
And so, according to Verhaeghe, we get the result: a kind of "depressive hedonia". And as Bauman noted, in the face of the superficial, individuals will look for deeper connections to establish more robust identities. Of course, this will fail. Because to worship autonomy is to preclude those identities from existing. More words from Marshall Mcluhan:
"The intensity of mass-control and exploitation is increased by the multiplication of superficial differences."
2. Atomization/Market Logic transforms the networks we exist in
One thing that most don't seem to grasp is that as you worship autonomy, you fundamentally change the physical SPACES that we inhabit. I touched on this to a degree on Wednesday noting that capitalism is opposed to "conservative values", but that's a far too narrow point. The real point should be "Capital is opposed to anything it cannot commodify, and will work to destroy those things and replace them with commodified alternatives".
The worship of autonomy introduces market logic to every element of our life, and furthermore transforms the spaces we inhabit. Noncommodified spaces where we can approach one another as full persons are destroyed and replaced with atomized spaces where we can only approach each other in terms of the utility the other can provide.
And so spaces where we relate to one another on a level deeper than utility, like the family, our churches and temples and mosques, monasteries, etc. are obliterated. There is no relation on the level of love or worship of God, etc. Monasteries are pretty close to the socialist economic dream in terms of how they operate, but they can only do so because they are not alienated from one another. They are not atomized. They are embedded in a community.
What replaces these spaces are spaces governed by competition and market logic. The workplace, the schoolyard (or really the classroom makes more sense, as friendship takes a backseat to competition), etc. Competition is ever-present. Everyone is a threat. The sheer number of teenage suicides should be sufficient evidence of that.
3. When choice becomes consumption, we have commodified the Self
So, the "thick"/"rich" unchosen ties that bind us to others must be replaced by commodified alternatives. As I noted above, Charles Taylor describes how our identity is tied up with the values we hold:
“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”
And so our atomized society develops massive numbers of commodified, superficial identities.
All of these identities, these bonds, must be chosen. And if they are chosen in this atomized hellworld, they are chosen according to market logic. In other words, they are consumed. In my all-too-human search and desire for identity, I am compelled to CONSOOM.
What is terrifying about this is that we have gone far beyond a commodification of our labour, of our bodies, perhaps even of our minds. We have commodified our very SELVES. For a Liberal, their identity is a commodity. Something to be picked up and tossed aside according to the logic of how much value it gives them. And yet the Left, in its broad endorsement of the value of autonomy, has embraced this wholeheartedly. They usually don't realize it, and they'll fight you tooth and nail if you tell them this, but our leftist friends hold the same core values as the "neoliberal capitalists" they claim to despise. Yeah, maybe you redistribute the means of production. But that change pales in comparison to what you do to the entirety of our social relationships. Autonomy demands atomization, which forces everything (including your very identity) to be governed by market logic. It is as hypercapitalistic as it comes.
Part 4: Can the Left be saved?
If you only came here to read about how the Left sucks, you can feel free to go enjoy the rest of your day. But as a former Leftist, and someone who still has many colloquially "Left-wing" views, I would like to ask this question.
The answer comes down to a very simple dilemma: either the Left can abandon autonomy and present a substantive moral vision of the Good Life, or it can continue to be indistinguishable from neoliberalism at the atomic level.
Rather than worshipping autonomy, the Left could argue that there are goods such as community, self-responsibility, etc. and that these goods are served well by providing greater leisure time and ensuring more economic opportunity and equality. These leftist policies are used in service of a substantive good, rather than as a way to maximize the autonomy of the individual.
Many people seem to think the Left is genuinely on the side of the Neoliberals. That deep down they actually like the system. This is not the case.
They genuinely have convinced themselves that freedom, the most good thing in their minds, is only achieved through a collective defined by ties that are only consensual. Of course, they don't realize that by making ties only consensual, they have commodified them and alienated individuals into atomized units. They are wrong, delusional even, but they are not secret supporters of the system. They unconsciously support the system because they do not grasp that on the atomic level, they are Liberals. Those atoms may be arranged differently to form a "neoliberal" or a "libertarian socialist", but the atomic level, the good of Autonomy, is the same.
So if the Left can present this substantive vision, it can save itself. That might mean abandoning some Sacred Cows. So be it, I say. Far better than to destroy what little remains of our social fabric.
Perhaps this means an endorsement of LaFollette's reconciliation of universality with particularity. Perhaps we agree with his claim that close personal relationships are prerequisites for the development of morally good people. Maybe that means we want to reduce the work day and increase the material well-being of society so that families can have greater support. Or the Left could endorse a variety of other moral viewpoints. Perhaps a kind of self-development, that the highest contribution someone can make to society is to develop themselves and then use that development to help others. I'm just spitballing here, so don't take these too seriously.
But ultimately, I cannot see myself returning to the Left until such a substantive moral vision of the Good Life is presented.
In other words, the Left can save itself...but does it want to?
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Ahh, maybe, maybe not. Seems like there are different flavors of these fields of political thought that prioritize Autonomy as analyzed here, but there are chunks of Left and Liberal that balance that with the sort of authentic connections, family life and sovereignty you describe as preferable. It's not an either/or, someone people autonomously decide to value those things.
Maybe it's about de-stigmatizing what it means to be autonomous and explore harmless degrees of freedom, without becoming a short-termist, hedonic burnout atomized individual.
I've been wanting to write an essay on this very topic for years. Thanks for expressing so well my own thoughts.