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Osita Nwanevu
13 min read
Mail Time!

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.

Recent Work

My review essay on early American history, our national identity, and the work of UVA historian Alan Taylor finally ran online for all readers this week, and you should check it out if you haven’t already. An excerpt:

Some on the right are fond of saying that America is a nation and not an idea. What they actually mean by this is that America is, conceptually, the rightful inheritance of a particular segment of the country with a particular set of ideas about America. Their perennial debates over this with liberals—which they tend to frame as clashes between realism and naïve idealism—are really debates between dueling idealisms. But the initial assertion taken in itself is more right than wrong. Before it’s anything else, America is a polity—a material entity governed by a particular set of durable institutions and populated by 330 million people inextricably bound up together here in our present. It is a field of contestation where our present—and our future—might be shaped to our benefit and the benefit of all humanity. And that great contest fully justifies itself. That is identity and purpose enough.
The angst over statuary, school curricula, and all the rest in recent years has been underpinned by the conviction that asking what we’re to do with American history amounts to asking what we’re to do with America—once we’ve settled whether the American conscience is defined by original sin or high ideals, we seem to believe, we’ll understand our destiny. But America has no destiny. It has no conscience. There is no American DNA, no American soul. America will not be carried off into hell for its crimes; it is not fated to repeat them. But no moral engine will pull this country and the world inexorably forward either. In the last century, the world has seen both extraordinary expansions of social and political freedom and bloodshed on an extraordinary, technologically facilitated scale. We live longer and we live better thanks to an economic system that has nevertheless produced previously unfathomable levels of inequality and that, for the short-term profit and convenience of a relative few, is gradually undoing the basic systems that have sustained stable human life on this planet.
The popular narratives we construct, to noble and ignoble ends, do not and cannot do justice to the interplay of agents, institutions, systems, and ideologies that actually shape history. We can find logic in the chaos. We might discern, in historical material, forces and circumstances that may have made, and may still make, certain outcomes likely or liable to recur. None of this amounts to spiritual predestination. You simply will not find, even in the best histories, binding instructions from the dead as to who or what the living ought to be.

Thanks to everyone who’s chimed in with responses.

Mail Time

We’re nearing the end of another month, so it’s time for reader questions. Several more questions came in this month than the last, so this will be a longer post.

In “Popularity, Contested,” I talked a little bit about the strategic divides between analysts and political actors left of center and tried to sketch out a schema about them:

Coalitionists: Some of those grouped here are further left than others and there are tonal differences in their critiques of Democrats and the administration. But broadly speaking, these are advocates for the concept of the Democratic coalition. Generally, they think we’ve had great success working within the party to push Biden and Democratic leaders left through primaries and advocacy and that we should keep at it with the hope that progressives will wind up taking over the party with time. (The Squad, Bernie Sanders, major progressive groups including Indivisible and Sunrise)
Popularists: The "Do Popular Things" crowd. Run on and implement popular ideas, move right on culture or at least cultural aesthetics, and make peace with the Democratic Party as it currently exists, and progressives will see incremental, but real and meaningful policy changes come to pass. (David Shor, Matthew Yglesias, and some journalists, basically)
Socialists: Sanders and members of the Squad describe themselves as socialists of course, but most on the DSA Left are more critical and skeptical of the Democratic Party as a responsive and malleable institution and many harbor doubts about electoral politics broadly speaking as well. While most support actively contesting even federal elections, the focus here is on organizing over the long-term to build a socialist movement led by the working class. (The DSA and other explicitly socialist organizers and activists)
Cranks: #FraudSquad, #ForceTheVote, #GeneralStrike, Like and Subscribe. (Miscellaneous)

I also expressed some skepticism about the utility of investing heavily in federal elections. “We’re rapidly approaching the limit of what can be won through our federal system without creating a reliable mass constituency for left politics and federal political reforms,” I wrote. “And the efforts to dial back even what we’ve won are already under way.”

Kenny from Pittsburgh wrote in with a bit of pushback.

Please consider the “back bench” question: what world would we be in if we didn’t have Sanders and Corbyn as knowledgeable, talented back benchers over a long period … that’s the fundamental thing we get out of campaigns while in the minority, and we have certainly nowhere near exhausted the need for this.
Let’s assume you are right that socialists and coalitionists are two different sets of people. (I don’t think we are, except in the moment; certainly over a lifetime I have been both.) Is it possible for either to succeed without the other succeeding? What evidence we have in the last 100 years – really, anywhere in the world – that socialists can build power outside the state without coalitionists building power inside the state? (And vice versa!) If this perspective is correct, who chooses to be a “socialist” in your typology, and who chooses to be a “coalitionist” may have less to do with political ideology and more to do with current social positioning. I was a “socialist” in your typology in 1990, and am a “coalitionist” now. The uncharitable thing DSAers say about me (I know this because I am a member of DSA and have gone to DSA meetings) is that I am too successful a professional; I am therefore invested in the inside now. They are right about this in the same way it would be right to accuse Bernie Sanders of the same thing. The alternative possibility is that like Martin and Malcolm, one of us is the carrot and one of us is the stick, and we need each other to accomplish anything.

So, on the first point, I think having leftists in Congress is important and I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. The concrete value of having Sanders in the Senate should be plain to all who’ve been following negotiations on COVID relief and the upcoming reconciliation bill since January. As I mentioned in that post, Cori Bush used her platform to great effect in pressuring the Biden administration to try extending the eviction moratorium. The broad point I was making is that electing backbenchers here and there, as useful as they are, isn’t itself a pathway to power or the kind of sweeping policy changes people are hoping for. A lot of time and resources are put into federal primary campaigns that won’t have much chance of succeeding until a large and reliable left-wing electorate has been produced. Some campaigns might be worth a try, but I think a focus on trying to win those races puts the cart before the horse.

On the second point, I should say that the categories I described aren’t necessarily hard and fixed ⁠— people might move or sit between them. Do socialists and coalitionists actually need each other? It’s a difficult question to answer without thinking through whether they actually share the same goals, which I admittedly did not do very explicitly in the original post. Broadly, I think everyone in all the categories I mentioned would agree that there’s too much inequality in the world today and that we should enact policies that relieve ordinary people from precarity and oppression so that they can live lives of real dignity and meaning. But there are sharp divides, obviously, over whether doing so would mean bringing an end to capitalism ⁠— some would say yes, some would say no, and some are ambivalent or undecided on the question.

Socialists, of course, are uniformly for socialism. But the coalitionists as I’ve described them included people in all three camps ⁠— what unites them isn’t a shared vision of ultimate ends but a sense that there are progressive or social democratic policies we can enact now that might improve our political and economic situation. And they don’t really “need” committed socialists, ultimately a marginal constituency within the American electorate, to make headway on them ⁠— there’s a large progressive political infrastructure, there are many more generically progressive voters than there are socialist ones, and centrist policymaking is tapped out enough that centrists are now looking to progressives for larger but not radically far-left solutions to problems they’ve already taken a whack at. This last thing is largely responsible for the progressive policymaking we’ve seen under Biden. It’s not obvious why buy-in from socialists or explicitly socialist organizing would be a political necessity on this side of things.

How about the other way around: do socialists need coalitionists? Again, socialists aren’t currently a large enough constituency to do very much on their own electorally. Right now, they need the support of others to win elections. That’s clear. What’s not clear is whether winning those elections in league with the coalitionists moves socialists substantially towards their actual goal, which is socialism. Electorally speaking, given that there are many more supporters of progressivism and social democracy than there are supporters of socialism ⁠— and that there are coalitionists who explicitly oppose socialism ⁠— I don’t think that relationship actually can without socialists organizing outside of coalition politics for socialism specifically. If they also work separately and by themselves to build out a comparably large socialist constituency, electoral politics might produce outcomes closer to socialism.

As I’ve written though, there’s real reason for pessimism about the biases in our federal system and the likelihood that they’ll severely constrain leftward policymaking post-Biden. That makes the other non-electoral forms of political work socialists are deeply engaged in ⁠— labor and community organizing, specific local issue campaigns, grassroots political education, etc ⁠— all the more important. I don’t actually know that they need coalitionists to do that kind of work; to the extent that coalitionists are already engaged in it, they’re not doing it to advance socialism.


Please write about your political conversion

This is an easy one. I was a pretty standard progressive Democrat ⁠— one critical of the Obama administration’s lack of ambition and aggression ⁠— up until 2016, when Donald Trump’s victory convinced me fully that the American political system is no longer tenable as currently constructed. Add in the climate crisis and the evidence all around that it will take more than conventional progressive remedies to fundamentally address inequality and precarity, and you have a leftist of some kind. What kind specifically, I’ll leave to others to suss out. All I can say is that my foremost commitment is to democracy ⁠— not just at the ballot box, but at work.


i would very much like to read your thoughts on liberalism vis a vis capitalism

The short version:

The long version: I’ve written some elsewhere about what I take small-l liberalism to mean. All of this is more complex than I can really do justice to, but the central claim of liberalism ⁠— the novel paradigm it brought into the world ⁠— is that we are these things called “individuals,” each fundamentally entitled to a degree of freedom and happiness as well as the use of something called “reason” in evaluating whether society is giving us what we’re due. Trivial as they might seem now, these were deeply strange and radical claims a few centuries ago. We understand them today as the ground capitalism has been built upon. But part of my frustration with all the talk about whether we’ve entered a “post-liberal” moment is that very nearly everybody in the Western world, and a great many people beyond it, now takes each of these assertions entirely for granted ⁠— even most of those who position themselves explicitly as critics of liberalism and capitalism.

I think that’s the case for most of the left. The idea that workers ⁠— as an abstract category ⁠— might be unduly exploited by an economic system is not really intelligible unless you begin from the presumption that human beings are entitled in the abstract to lives of dignity and ought to have their standing within social and economic systems assessed and amended by reason. Again, these were once radical claims ⁠— advanced by liberals in a world where it was widely presumed that one’s lot in life was established by a natural or supernatural order of things beyond rational investigation or inquiry. They helped demystify the world. Marxism demystified it further still, but proceeded from liberal presumptions. It’s not really an accident, though they might dismiss it as such, that the most putatively anti-liberal leftists routinely describe historical materialism, positively, as a “science.”

I think Marx’s description of life under communism is also instructive here. From The German Ideology:

[A]s the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

In short, in a world in which our material needs were secured, we’d have the freedom to take up whatever pursuits we’d personally deem worthwhile, unbound by economic demands. We’d be governed by our own reason and our own desires. What could possibly entitle us to such a future? In a word, liberalism.

Now, the real crux of the supposed tension between liberalism and Marxism ⁠— and the factor supposedly tethering liberalism to capitalism ⁠— is the question of property rights. Without getting too deep into the weeds, I think it’s worth saying first off that Marx, as far as I’ve read anyway, didn’t actually contest a right to own things. In fact, he identified the erosion of traditional property rights as one of capitalism’s negative consequences in the Manifesto:

We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence.
Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily.

As he wrote immediately afterwards, the property that actually concerned Marx was the kind of property that would maintain economic domination if left in the hands of the wealthy masters of the economy. My italics below:

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.
In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.
From the moment when labour can no longer be converted into capital, money, or rent, into a social power capable of being monopolised, i.e., from the moment when individual property can no longer be transformed into bourgeois property, into capital, from that moment, you say, individuality vanishes.
You must, therefore, confess that by “individual” you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible.
Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriations.

Again, this seems less like an attack on “property rights” than one on economic hierarchy ⁠— rights are to be constrained to the extent that they make domination possible, but communism, as described by Marx, denies no one the “power to appropriate the products of society.” It should be said too, of course, that the dominant socialist tendency in the United States today is “democratic socialism,” which envisions an economy in which basic necessities are taken out of the market and provided to all ⁠— while the remaining majority of the economy is populated by worker controlled firms engaged in market competition. That’s clearly a fundamental break from capitalism. It’s less obvious to me that it’s a fundamental break from property rights as we’ve known them.

There are three areas of tension between Marxism and the liberalism that prevails within political discourse today that I tend to think more about. The first is the question of agency. A lot of liberal thought begins from the presumption that individuals are possessed not only of a certain dignity and certain moral entitlements, but an actual capacity to act in the world as true individuals ⁠— individual freedom might be constrained by certain factors, most liberals hold, but we do have it very broadly speaking. Marxists hold that individual freedom is largely an illusion given material constraints; in the passages above, Marx seems to present it as an aspiration. The second is deontology ⁠— many liberals are heavily invested in rational procedures and rules; Marxists stress that putatively fair systems and structures are shaped and often deformed, again, by material conditions, and tend to an emphasis on outcomes. The third is social embeddedness. The Marxist sees the individual but recognizes too that they are inextricably bound up within social units; many liberals are given to talking about the individual as though they were genuinely a kind of loose atom.

In short, what a lot of Marxists seem to reject in liberalism are moves from the recognition of individual dignity to an individualism ⁠— denials of the reality that our lives are shaped by social obligations and bonds as well as material conditions we might transform to give ourselves the agency we wrongly believe we already have. Are those differences sufficiently large to cleave them away from liberalism altogether or are they disagreements best situated within liberalism’s already large and rowdy house? As is probably obvious, I tend to think the latter ⁠— I don’t think Marxism’s concerns would be coherent without the philosophical premises liberals put forward. I could be wrong, though.

Thanks all for reading this second month of the newsletter. Again, send in questions for the next Mail Time or any other comments to I’d really like to hear your feedback on what other features you’d like to see in the letter as well as your thoughts on whether I should open up a (very lightly moderated) comment section. Recommend me things. Call me out on things. I’m all ears.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Good night.