Reflections on Entering and Leaving the Left, and Other Matters, Part i.

Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855–1888).jpg
This somehow this seemed an appropriate portrait for this essay: here at his desk is the young Russian radical and author Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855–1888), as depicted by his friend Ilia Efimovich Repin. (Met. 1972.145.2)

For some time now I’ve realized that I am effectively politically and ideologically homeless. Having for a time sojourned on the libertarian left, over the last few years I’ve drifted away from the left side of the spectrum, but without really ending up anywhere classifiable. By many metrics I no doubt still appear ‘leftish’—I am critical of both statism and capitalism, embrace political decentralization, the wider distribution of power and wealth, localized control, the importance of unions, co-ops, and other mutualist or even socialist forms of political economy, and so on. While I would not describe myself as an environmentalist, my reasons are similar to those of someone like Paul Kingsnorth (whose trajectory I think I can understand quite well, and which has many similarities with my own), and the importance of the ecological to my politics has increased, in no small part I suspect to having recently become a father. But at the same time I have grown extremely critical, or simply uninterested, in much of the rest of leftist discourse, both in its more ‘classical’ formulations and its contemporary manifestations in the West, most of which I find alternatively infuriating and dull. I have never had any interest in and but little patience for so-called progressive politics, and the recent turn of those politics towards essentialism and shallow identity-mongering has done nothing to raise my appetite. But closer to the lay of the radical politics I once practiced, I can no longer countenance a politics based solely on some form of ‘liberation’ divorced from transcendent values, nor can I intellectually or otherwise justify the ideas of personal autonomy and strict egalitarianism lying behind those ideas of liberation. And I found that a great deal of what I needed to maintain to remain a ‘good’ leftist, even of the libertarian variety, simply did not mesh with any form of reality I could perceive. Nor could I any longer reconcile the full range of my ‘strong’ political commitments with my commitment to Orthodox Christianity and my increasingly ‘thick’ formation within the Church.

But even deeper, I found that I simply could not subordinate my life and the world around me to a political ideology of any sort, that I could not and did not want to bring everything under the aegis of the political: which was exactly what seemingly every political option, left and right, was demanding. So there it is in a nutshell—in what follows, here and in further essays, eventually, I’d like to walk through this process, to scope out my own twists and turns of thinking, of practice, of emotional development and change. As is the case with a lot of personal, autobiographical writing, my foremost goal is really just to explain myself to myself, to make sense of my own life’s trajectory through a selective but, I hope, relatively honest and thoughtful narrative. Of course there are arguments and claims herein, which I imagine an astute reader picking up on and probably contesting. But more fundamentally, I think that this political de-conversion narrative points to a very important reality about what it is to be human: our lives do not unfold neatly and coherently, our thinking and our cultural participation and choices do not necessarily make sense, and where we end up is often quite unpredictable and contingent. Every self is really a sort of bricolage, a multitude of wills at work in one person, as Flannery O’Connor put it. Our lives unfold under the signs of many ‘cultures’ and traces, things gathered in the past rising to the surface unexpectedly and uncalled for. Therein, in fact, lies part of the problem with any political ideology: it tends to smooth things over, to foreclose the stories and pieces and moements that do not ‘fit,’ and to demand that we render our own life narratives accordingly.

So, to begin. I don’t really know precisely at what point I started to think of myself as being on the left of the political spectrum. It was really more of a gradual process, and a gradual realization- both coming and going. In this I imagine that my experience is not too different from that of many others. That said, there have been particular points in my life that have stood out as pivotal moments, both at the time and in later reflection, moments that, not coincidentally, also provide good structure for a narrative. My two most important political epiphanies both came, at different speeds, in the first years of the new millennium: the first, and probably most fundamental, was a result of a summer spent in southwest China, at the tender age of nineteen. That summer was, in retrospect, one of the most important and formative periods in my life, a summer of dawning realizations, vastly opened vistas, joyful, sometimes strange, encounters, and wrenching conclusions about the nature of things. I was hardly a naive or uninformed young person at the time, to be sure, but my knowledge of the world beyond my own corner of it was mostly mediated to me at a remove, and that mediation, as is so often the case, disguised as much as it revealed.

Among the revelations visited upon me during those alternatively blissful and excruciating months in the hills of Yunnan was a clarity about the nature of the state and of capitalism. I had already imbued literature, political positions, and cultural ephemera such as to give me a critical stance towards both, but it was fragmentary and incoherent. I thought of certain sorts of states—authoritarian and totalitarian ones—as ‘bad,’ and if I thought of capitalism at all I worried about its particular uses, and did not think of political economy or economy in general in a very systematic way. I had a sense that capitalism was the result of free markets, within the framework of a state that oversaw some things but mostly left the market to work its magic, or something along those lines.

But in China, suddenly, removed from the moorings of familiarity, of propaganda, and of any sense of loyalty or identification with the prevailing system, things suddenly took on a different hue. Here both globalized capitalism, in its viciously expansive, all-consuming aspect, and the totalizing state were on display to me, unmediated—I was not the audience of Chinese propaganda, and I had not been socialized into seeing things here as natural in the way I saw things in my home country. Nor did what categories I possessed allow me to interpret things away: China was obviously not a Communist state in the historical senses I was familiar with, and there was no denying the roaring economy or capitalist relations, including the social dislocation, class stratification, and ecological destruction that came with them. But most shocking to me was the apparent synthesis between the flourishing capitalist market and the totalizing state—while tension obviously was present, the two flowed in and out of one another, constituting the other’s success. Discovering this in China, even as the summer went on, I began to reflect on how things back home in America might not be so different. I returned home with the seeds of radical discontent planted and beginning to sprout.

The second great catalyst for my personal transformation was America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, and here my story no doubt intersects with many people of my generation. At first I was, like the majority of Americans, including an unfortunate number of people who should have known better, supportive of the war. But this began to change—from that summer in China forward, in fact, I think because I now had an emotional distance and an expanding tool kit to critique the American state’s actions. By my junior year in college I was a committed anti-war activist, of an increasingly libertarian—in the conventional sense—bent. This political transformation caused no small amount of friction between myself and others in my native South Mississippi, though far from discouraging me it was rather enjoyable, my disposition always having had something of the natural contrarian in it. My first real political engagement after my anti-state, anti-war ‘turn’ was volunteering for what was in retrospect a politically hopeless project, Ron Paul’s Presidential campaign in 2006-7. While I was uncomfortable with some aspects of Paul’s platform, or simply did not care for them, I thought that his was the only serious anti-war candidacy in the offing; the young Senator from Illinois, I suspected, would not seriously follow through his rhetorical posturing, a suspicion that proved to be at least partially correct. The Paul campaign in South Mississippi was a motley crew, which was in itself delightful: stolid old paleoconservatives mixed with antiwar hippies mixed with aspiring radicals—though not very many Republicans, which of course proved to be a problem. While our efforts came to naught electorally, for me it was a useful experience, both in terms of practical skills and in getting a sense of the limitations of electoral politics, both of which helped move me further left, as it turned out.

One other occurrence in my life at the time stands out as formative, though in more subtle ways: not long after I returned from my sojourn in China, South Mississippi was hit by Hurricane Katrina, and both my college and my hometown lay square within its path. I was awoken by a resident assistant the morning of the day before landfall—our internet on campus was out, and this was before smartphones, so I was blissfully unaware of the storm’s change in trajectory. I gathere a few things and drove the thirty or so miles north to my parents’, where we hunkered down and rode out the storm—a spectacular and terrifying experience in itself. In the aftermath—and here its importance for my political formation comes in— I was amazed by the degree to which society did not in fact break down despite the fact that much of our rural county was cut off from the governing structures of modern life. Had we called the police no one would have come—the roads into town were blockaded by rows and rows of fallen pine trees, fallen trees which neighbors banded together, without anyone telling them what to do, and cleared with chainsaw and axe and four-wheeler. All over our county little communities and bands of people came together and restored order, all without any central direction or threat or market impetus or coordination. I did not immediately see all of this as political or philosophically significant—rather, it stuck with me and worked its influence gradually, encouraging me to think in different ways about how things like government and collective organization and action might work and be conceived.

I’ll end here for now, with my young adult self approaching the libertarian left but not quite there. You will notice that I have not mentioned any theorists or thinkers or other authors or scholars—not because they are not present in this story, but because I’ve found that my thinking and view of the world has tended to unfold in a dialogue between experience and written authority in which experience has tended to set the parameters first, theoretical renderings working in around those lines. I should also note that of course other trajectories of importance were at work: probably most importantly, my gradual movement away from the evangelical Protestantism of my youth towards my eventual reception into the Orthodox Church. These stories are of course all intertwined—the challenge of any narrative of a life in part one of finding a way to convey so many things at once, and evaluating the relative importance and role of all the strands. Even for one’s own life—perhaps especially for one’s own life—this can be frustratingly difficult to do, and offers no easy solutions.

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