Namoi Klein has had a weird couple of years. She has been constantly confused for Namoi Wolf, a former feminist who has gone, not to put too fine a point on it, cuckoo for coco puffs. There is hardly a right-wing conspiracy theory that Wolf has not embraced, from COVID denialism to Qanon. Klein has written an interesting book about the experience of being mistaken for a lunatic, the most penetrating insight being that liberals are susceptible to being swallowed by conspiracy thinking because of their worldview.
Klein argues that liberals do not have a systematic critique of the world, capital specifically. That they, as a class, have accepted the general shape of the allegedly meritocratic world and merely want everyone to be given an equal shot at excelling in the alleged meritocracy. Leftists recognize that there is no such thing, that the system is destructive and does not reward merit. When a liberal like Wolf — someone who believes in the rules and has been rewarded for following them — encounters the inevitable disappointments of systematic failure — they are primed to attribute those cruelties to the work of individuals and those fall into conspiracy thinking. Leftists are somewhat better protected from that temptation because they have a systematic critique to help them understand that it’s not “Them” but rather specific institutions with specific roles in a constructed system causing the problems.
This makes a lot of sense to me, in large part because of To Kill a Mockingbird.
I have written about this in other places, but To Kill a Mockingbird has always struck me as a perfect example of the divide discussed above. Atticus is the hero of the book. He fails to get Tom off the false charge (put aside a moment that the defense is disturbingly close to “she asked for it”. The book is of its age and the text clearly wants you to believe Tom was innocent) and Tom is later killed, in what I believe the text wants us to understand is a pretext. Atticus, though, is still the hero because he tried to use the system to show Tom’s innocence at some personal cost. It is a very liberal view — he did all that could be expected to be done.
Except did he? He knew that Tom was going to be found guilty, regardless of what he did. And yet he played his part in the corrupt system. He did not try to help Tom escape. He did not put the system on trial. He played his part, knowing that Tom was going to be found guilty regardless. From a leftist point of view, he’s not much of a hero. He solved nothing, helped no one.
That is pretty par for the course for liberalism. It very rarely solves problems. Which does not mean it has no value. Liberalism can and has been used to take just enough edge off the problems to allow for the natural evolution of a system into a more just equilibrium. FDR’s New Dela is a good example: he modified the social contract in capitalism for it to fend of revolution in the US long enough to be rescued by the economic mobilization of WWII. This, as I said, can be a good thing. Violence breaks things — people, infrastructure, countries — and rarely can anyone control what will be built in their place.
But that stalling can also lead to very bad outcomes. The refusal of the Union to deal properly with the underpinnings of plantation exploitation led to decades of Jim Crow. The failure of the liberals to properly understand the roots of the 1917 Revolution led to the countercoup that opened the door to the Bolsheviks. The success of the Luddites came not from appeals to Parliament but from violence against the established order (though the Luddites only killed one man).
Again, this is not to say that leftism is without faults. The French Revolution ate itself. The fact that every Communist revolution has led to a dictatorship is a serious rebuke to the form of Communism that must be honestly dealt with. And as I said, violence is unpredictable and has real costs in and of itself. When someone dies and makes me an all-powerful, all-knowing God who can tell when the price of violence is necessary and when it is counterproductive, I will let you know. Until then, it is always an uncertain, fraught decision.
But liberalism fundamentally lacks the tools to properly critique the world in which it operates. Its resistance to systematic change and critique and insistence on the primacy of individual action and merit leave it incapable of proper change. Leftists can attempt in good faith to make the world a systematically better place for all. Liberals are effectively reduced to tweaking around the edges and hoping that is sufficient for a sufficient number of people to allow things to continue. Sometimes that works. But sometimes it leads people to QANON and sometimes it condemns an entire nation to stagnation and repression.