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    PloughCast 68: The State of the Left

    The Enemy, Part 1

    By Fredrik deBoer, Leah Libresco Sargeant and Susannah Black Roberts

    September 13, 2023
    • Michael Nacrelli

      I have to ask why no one challenged a self-described Marxist about the tens of millions murdered, enslaved, and impoverished by governments claiming his professed ideology.

    • Seth

      I appreciate the diversity of thought and practicality shown in both the questions and answers here. It reassures me that the Anabaptist tradition can engage effectively with outside points of view. I assume that's part of the specific vision and mission for Plough within the Bruderhof community.

    • Kam

      This interview is full of antagonism and really unhelpful polarities about our world. It makes me question the vision and mission of Ploughing.

    About This Episode

    Leah and Susannah grill Fredrik deBoer on the state of leftist politics.

    What happened in 2020 and why have things not changed more? How does a self-described leftist perceive the stakes and priorities of America’s political divide? What happens when labor power is no longer at the center of leftist politics?

    They then discuss his 2020 book The Cult of Smart, and Leah presses him on where he derives his sense of the existential worth of each human being.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. For our second podcast for The Enemy series, I’m very pleased to be joined by Plough contributing editor Leah Libresco Sargeant, and by author and commentator Fredrik deBoer. Welcome, and thank you, Freddie, for coming on the show!

    You are the author of a new book, your latest, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement. Describe this book. It’s kind of an outgrowth of other stuff that you’ve been talking about for a long time. People might know you from your previous book, The Cult of Smart or from your extensive online writings, but it’s also something, it’s a bit of a new direction. Can you describe what led you to write the book and what questions you were trying to answer?

    Fredrik deBoer: I wrote the book because we were trying to buy a house and we did.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Congratulations.

    Fredrik deBoer: Thanks. So there’s a few things. I think the biggest thing was just that I have been shocked by the degree to which the 2020 uprising if you want to call that or however you want to talk about the sort of post George Floyd moment was discussed as a sort of epic society altering phase in which it was a constant deluge of people talking about how nothing would ever be the same, and from the vantage of three years in the future, just three years in the future, almost everything appears to be the same. And there’s been tremendous little conversation about what happened and what didn’t happen and why. So the core of the book is a brief pop history of what led into that moment, so talking about things like Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, the Trump election, the birth of Black Lives Matter in 2014, and then what happened and where things went and why things didn’t change.

    Part of the reason why I think we haven’t really grappled with this profound failure of this massively hyped moment to actually result in any meaningful change, I think number one is people are scared to say so. One of the things that has lingered is a fear of appearing to criticize Black Lives Matter and the movement against police violence. But also number two, I think that we are trapped in the conversation about wokeness or whatever term you want to use in a way that’s really destructive and unhelpful. And one of the things that I have to keep letting people know is that this book has very little to do with what people call woke or wokeness because when we talk about things being woke, we’re generally talking about interpersonal or within individual systems sort of codes of behavior and language that are not really connected in a deeper way to a movement to achieve change.

    So archetypally, a woke moment is when someone says something that’s considered offensive in an academic or corporate context, and the leadership of that school or of that business make the decision to enforce consequences on the person who said this supposedly offensive thing. And then maybe that becomes a media item, and then the debate is about whether that term is really offensive and whether the punishment was appropriate, et cetera. All of that is very distinct from the effort to actually create lasting change in the world. I have been doing some kind of in real life activism since I was a teenager, and there’s very little discussion of that in part because it’s just easier to report out on things that happen in these woke controversies. But it has very, very deeply frustrated me that there’s not more consideration of, OK, the 2020 moment as a moment in the history of activism, of social movements, of trying to achieve social change and legislative change, how is that situated? What has actually changed? Why have so many things not changed, and where are we going from here? And that was the point of the book.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: So I want to ask a follow-up question there just because I think I definitely recognize of this inward turned paranoia in social justice movements, and I feel like part of it comes out of that real sense that when you get this big moment, this energy behind Black Lives Matter, it ends up co-opted, dissipated, made into stickers. So I can see how there’s a not so much … I understand where the drive for more shibboleths, more ways to check who’s actually on your side and who’s kind of, woke capitalism comes into being. How do people distinguish between a healthy paranoia that whenever a social movement emerges it will be co-opted and watered down and a destructive paranoia?

    Fredrik deBoer: I think that there’s just a real lack of strategic vision all around. I think one of the things that was difficult about this moment is that a lot of traditions of left activism and left protesting and social movements have either sort of got extinct because the way that they were branding themselves or their particular concerns were considered not to line up perfectly with the concerns of the social justice movement. So, for example, when was this? Maybe in 2005, whenever Connecticut performed its last execution of men, named Michael Ross, a serial killer named Michael Ross. I was actually there at the protests against the execution, and I was talking to a friend recently, and we were saying about how this sort of the anti-death penalty movement as we knew it, at least in that local context, was really sort of subsumed under this much broader sort of anti-criminal justice movement. And in some ways, you lose a certain sense of the continuity of those things.

    Another good example of this is Antifa, and it is by the way ANTIfa. It is not pronounced AnTIfa. And the quickest way for me to know that you’re a poser is if you say AnTIfa, the fact that so many people are saying AnTIfa goes to show that we don’t have a tradition here. Now, I’ve been around Antifa at protests since I was seventeen years old, and one of the things that’s lost on a lot of people is that Antifa always had a controversial sort of perspective or point of view within the left coalition. It was perfectly common, for example, at the anti-war protests that I was helping organize around the Iraq war for a lot of the people in the groups involved to be quite dismissive or antagonistic towards Antifa because the thing that happened a lot was Antifa would show up, they’d do some sort of meaningless provocation and invite police violence.

    There was also a whole discourse which is completely forgotten now, that Antifa was a white affluent element of the left coalition that the people who joined and participated in Antifa were the people who were the sort of angry rich white kids who were looking for an excuse to blow shit up. When you have that kind of … so many of those things are lost because right now if I talk to the average person who describes themselves as a socialist, they have no idea that Antifa was ever controversial. They’ll just say, “Oh, Antifa they’re our heroes, our anti-capitalist soldiers,” which is completely drained at the complexity of what used to be a very complex situation. When that happens, I don’t think people have a strategic sense really at all. Right?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Why are people so rootless when they look at their own movement? Because in some ways the internet and archival research there makes it easier than ever to look at … I’ve been reading detailed articles about the rescue movement for pro-lifers where I can go through all the scans. I’ve seen people passing around scanned copies of Triumph on the right. It’s easier than ever to look at the documentation from previous parts of a movement. Why do you think people have this disconnect when it’s all there somewhere?

    Fredrik deBoer: I think that there’s a few things that all point in the same direction on this. I think the first of which is that it used to be the case that there was a certain amount of skin in the game that was required of you to participate in these things. I sat in a lot of smelly hot vans for hours on rides down to DC to attend rallies against the war in the 2000s. If you wanted to hear an anti-war speech, you couldn’t just wait for the video to pop up on YouTube because there was no YouTube, and those sort of things weren’t carried even by the few sites, like the news sites that already had video capability at that point. You had to actually go and seek them out.

    When you reduce the barriers to “participate in the process,” when you have made it so easy for people to engage in things that feel like and maybe look from the outside like participation, then it disincentivizes doing the work of research. A fundamental problem is the left has in the last couple decades, traded intensity for just sheer boots on the ground. So when this was all happening, millions of people who had never before been part of any kind of political activist movement, sort of started to consider themselves supporters of the George Floyd protests. Millions of people went to their first protest physically, but millions more changed their Instagram photo to a black photo. And so when the sort of tools are so accessible and it seems so easy to be able to participate, you don’t have the sort of natural thing of, well, if I’m devoting a lot of my time and energy into this, then I’m going to bother to do the work and to investigate and to figure out what’s really going on here.

    But it’s also a vestige of the fact that there’s a real infantile resistance to anything that came before out of the conviction that the youth will save us, the savior is always the next generation. I’m an elder millennial. There was a time when people talked about us the way they’re talking about Gen Z now. In other words, “The Republicans will never win another election once the millennials really start voting,” which is a thing that just gets said over and over and over again, a point that I make all the time. Nowadays, people talk about Gen X as being the politically apathetic generation, but when they were in their twenties, they were known as the crazy political generation. I can’t remember what the headline is, but there’s a Time magazine, cover story all about how Gen X is, “Why are they so crazy in political? Why are they so radical?”

    They shut down the WTO meetings in Seattle with what were some of the most intense protests that we’ve ever seen. And so there’s an amnesia about the fact that these claims have been made before, and there’s a real dedication to saying, “OK, the next generation is going to be the one that does it.” And it’s like during the sort of immediate post-financial crisis era, the Occupy Era, some people had a slogan which made me wince so hard; it was called No Dads, which was supposed to be the statement that we don’t have any older authority figures over us. We’re doing our own thing. But it’s like you’re just literally just saying, “My interest in this is Oedipal.” Right? You’re just saying this is about psychodrama. And so I think when you’ve created these conditions where you are constantly valorizing the youth and saying that the new will always be better than the old, then you’re telling people, “Hey, there’s no reason to research what was happening in the Civil Rights Movement in the mid 1960s because that’s the past. That’s the Dads.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: This seems related to me, linked to something else that you wrote about in the book, which is the kind of allergy to hierarchy or to leadership. When I was involved in Occupy, which was basically me going down to Zuccotti Park and hanging out in the little library area and then maybe sitting around at some meetings, that was the first time I’d ever encountered the consensus decision making attempt with a group of people who had never met each other before largely and also the sort of idea of progressive stack. And that sort of commitment to consensus decision making … so the Bruderhof, which is the group that publishes this magazine, actually, they’re an Anabaptist religious community, and they actually do practice consensus decision-making so it can work for them, but I’ve found it to be incredibly cumbersome when it’s actually put into practice.

    And you describe a moment when you were actually ejected from a group as a result of this commitment to consensus and allergy to leadership, and that allergy to leadership and to hierarchy seems to me to be linked to the allergy to elders essentially. Does that make sense to you, and can you describe that moment?

    Fredrik deBoer: Yeah, sure. I think that does make sense to me. The progressive student alliance at Central Connecticut State University where I got my BA was the place where I really became an activist and where it went from being a thing that I did a couple of weekends a year to being something that I was doing at one point twenty plus hours a week. And it was really generative, and the people were really smart and committed, and it was a really wonderful part of my life. And also that group was also really fucked up and constantly blowing itself up because it is a far left group, and that’s what we do, right? So the story goes that, I’ve been in that group for a while. There were some sort of longstanding tensions. I was not the leader. I was one of several people who I would call leaders. There was total resistance to saying that anyone had any formal position as a leader, which makes no sense, right? Because the thing about leadership is it exists even if you don’t give it names. Some people are more committed than other people. Some people are bringing more to the table. Some people are more willing to work, and that’s necessary if you’re going to get anything done.

    So you can refuse to give leadership names, but it doesn’t change the fact that leadership dynamics exist in those spaces, which is a point that I was making all the time. Some people in the group wanted to adopt a consensus only decision making process, which means that for any decision that we made, it was not sufficient to vote and get a majority, but that every decision we made had to be carried out via unanimous consensus, that anyone who objected to anything would stop the process and we would have to continue to talk until we had consensus on something. There are some very obvious problems with that.

    The first one is that anyone could show up to our meetings. We didn’t want to keep anyone out. Any student could show up and say, “I’m a member of the meeting now.” But that meant that consensus becomes an incredibly easy tool for someone to just totally derail the group. If there’s no vetting process whatsoever and anyone has the ability to singularly shut down the consensus process, you become extremely vulnerable to saboteurs, but also just to assholes. Just not necessarily to people who are doing it in a scheming way, but who just are not productive. But the other big thing for me was to say that, “Look, we’re a working class college with a very diverse student body, and we should want our decisions and our positions within our group to be diverse in turn. And I don’t want to be part of a group that agrees about everything.”

    And it’s like, yeah, I’m sure a bunch of Anabaptists can get consensus a lot, but that tells you more about Anabaptists than it tells you about the issues, right? Anyway, but look, I respect the democratic process. We had a long discussion, and I said, “Well, look, let’s just take the vote. And if I lose, I lose, that’s how it works.” And the things that I knew that there were people who agreed with me, but who were afraid to speak out. So, again, you’re talking about trying to create consensus so that everybody feels heard, but there’s people in the group who are afraid to defy the consensus push because they’re afraid of pissing off the right people. That’s an indication of exactly why consensus doesn’t work. Because another thing that happens with consensus is you forever end up with people getting railroaded where they do formally consent to whatever the issue is, but they’re only doing so under coercion, but they have no other way to do it. And the next thing …

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Let me ask one tangential question there. Given the critiques of consensus, do you think it’s a reasonable standard for juries?

    Fredrik deBoer: That’s a good question.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Because I’ve served on a jury, and there was a lot of browbeating because we knew we had to get to consensus regardless of whether there was agreement.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Your story reminded me of 12 Angry Men. I was like, picturing you there directed by Sidney Lumet, like refusing.

    Fredrik deBoer: I haven’t given this a ton of thought. I think the fact that a failure to achieve consensus results in a mistrial, which is not the same as a conviction, the practical outcome of what a mistrial actually means for the accused makes that a very difficult question. To the degree to which a mistrial is of benefit to the accused, I don’t mind if the consensus system is used in such a way that the accused is helped by the more likely chance of a mistrial. That being said, I really haven’t thought about it that deeply.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, I would tend to agree just because the whole point being the worst situation is convicting an innocent person. So the whole point is that you ought to be able to convince twelve people to have consensus about this.

    Fredrik deBoer: Exactly right. And it goes along with just the sense that the burden is on the state to prove the case, right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: The question I guess I would have is, is this baked into the left? So respect for hierarchy and leaders and elders in the past are right coded things. Is there a way for a leftist group to adopt these things? And what would that look like?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Yeah, I’m interested in this too.

    Fredrik deBoer: Yeah. I just think that …

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I want to know what a healthy engagement with tradition looks like.

    Fredrik deBoer: I guess the thing I would do is I would steer us away from abstraction here. I am a leftist, and I have a socialist and other titles, et cetera, which refers to both a moral system and a system for understanding the world, both of which coalesce into a set of positions that I hold. I have never held the position that the new is necessarily better than the old. I think that that kind of commitment is just not compatible with an ability to just move about the world intelligently. Look, there is a teleological aspect of Marxism in that it believes in successive phases of history. And if all goes according to plan, each successive phase is better than the one that came before it. But that doesn’t mean that even from a strictly Marxist position within any particular phase of history, there’s a preference for the later phase than for the earlier.

    And I think that that sort of thing is, this is actually something that I’ve been saying for a long time, is I think that the left gets too caught up in that kind of abstraction like the new is good. I think that that sort of thing steers us in the wrong direction. But the reason why that sort of abstraction is so common on the left is because when you’ve been systematically excluded from actual power, when your position, when DSA gets together and debates things, their position on whether a given federal judge actually gets confirmed or not is completely meaningless, right? Because they have no ability to influence that process at all. And when you don’t have the ability to influence the actual practical process of democracy, it’s very easy to retreat to the abstract, the symbolic, the philosophical, the linguistic.

    This is bound up in why the left had so much zeal for language codes and things like that lately. We can’t tear down capitalism, we can’t tear down the carceral state. We can’t even get a ham sandwich put on in any actual legislative capacity. So what do we do? Well, we can control language, we can demand things in language. We happen to have our basis of power in places like media and academia and Hollywood and the world of nonprofits, so the world where the symbolic and the linguistic is privileged. And so you always push in that direction towards abstraction, towards sort of regulating the symbolic because what else are we going to do?

    Susannah Black Roberts: It seems to me that, your book touches on this, and this is a way in which it links up with Sohrab Ahmari’s new book, Tyranny, Inc. You’ve said only power is power and the left doesn’t have it. And you’re talking about political power here, but what it seems to me that is going on is you can sort of see when people on the right think of the left, they don’t think usually of the economic left. They don’t think of people opposing capitalism. Half the time they oppose capitalism. They think in terms of the left is something that is utterly committed to as their primary thing, these symbolic things. But it seems to me that what’s lost in those squabbles is the fact that essentially corporate power is using these kind of symbolic victories or battles usually over things that have to do with identity politics as a way to protect its own actual sort of financial power as a way to mystify and disguise the protection that is doing of the real power that it is seek to protect, which is its own economic dominance.

    Is that a sort of description of what you are getting at to a certain degree?

    Fredrik deBoer: Yeah, sure. I would push back a little bit about saying that the left doesn’t have power is particularly about political power. Obviously, political power is a big part of it, but labor power is another axis of power that is not actually fundamentally political. And that was once the left’s great strength, and we don’t have it anymore. And this is the sort of thing I talk to younger lefties, and these are people who think of themselves as these socialists and in the tradition of Marx and the labor movement, et cetera. But they conceive of unions only as fundamentally political organizations in the sense that they can donate money to candidates or they can rally their workers to vote for a particular candidate, et cetera. What the labor movement of the early parts of the twentieth century, so stretch of two or three decades in the first half of the twentieth century when that movement was at its zenith, they were taking advantage of the direct material power that labor sort of entitles you to.

    So a strike, for example, is fundamentally not a political exercise. So what you sometimes will hear workers will go on strike and someone will say, “Oh, well this is going to turn the public against them,” but the fact of the matter is that a well-executed strike, it just makes no difference if the public cares about you. What a strike does is it says it will be more expensive to you as a business to oppose our demands than to give them to us, and we’re going to prove that by denying our labor power, and eventually it’s going to get expensive enough that it just doesn’t make sense in a pocketbook sense for you not to give us what we want. And it just absolutely makes no difference if people find that that’s powerful. So that’s an example of the kind of power that we used to have, and we don’t have anymore.

    Unfortunately, the successes of the early American labor movement, which were instrumental in all kinds of aspects of improving working conditions for working people, was sort of met by a really ferocious organized anti-union movement led among other places, for example, by the US Chamber of Commerce, which sounds like an official government organization, but it’s not. That sort of poisons the well. So there’s this famous clip of Ronald Reagan, I think it’s ’81 maybe, ’80 or ’81, and he’s giving a speech in which he is giving a soaring endorsement of union rights and why unions are so essential and so important to America and to the common man.

    I have no doubt that he didn’t believe in any of it because he is Ronald Reagan, and his administration was doing everything possible to hurt the labor movement. But at that point in our culture, you could not be a national politician and just be generally identified as anti-labor. That’s completely changed. Right now, a Republican would never give that speech, a big national Republican, and they, in fact, often use their anti-labor credentials as a political chip. And so that’s fundamentally, I think, what’s lacking from the left right now is this axis of power that we used to have was systematically degraded by a lot of bad laws. It was degraded by globalization, and it was degraded by the way that the axis of the left moved from the sort of union hall into the universities.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Something that the way that you described what you meant by politics and the distinction between what unions are doing and the properly political is interesting to me just because when I think of politics, I tend to think of … so my experience of activism such as it was, was really Occupy, and the thing that was distinct to me about that was that it was totally dysfunctional community, but it was creating a sort of actual lived community with its own incredibly messed up governance. But the sort of attractiveness of it was, here’s an actual community that is being created and that people are experiencing whether or not we even know what we want in terms of demands. We didn’t really, but we knew we wanted… it was the general kind of leftist, anti-globalization vibe from that time. And there was this sense of there’s a dehumanized, global faux community that is destroying actual lived community.

    And so whatever else we’re going to do, we’re going to stay here until it gets too cold. And it seems to me that political activism can create powerful communities, and that’s actually one of the most attractive things about it. People’s friend groups are all bound up in these things, but that can get complicated and overlapping because political activism, various kinds of political activism, whether electoral or you wouldn’t call unions political activism or economic pressure groups have a purpose that’s other than existing together in peace and friendship. Is there a way for an activist community to be a real community whose primary purpose is existing together in peace and friendship, which has as a kind of secondary purpose, various kinds of political change? Have you seen that? Is that something that seems desirable to you?

    Fredrik deBoer: I’m trying to think of examples. I think you could name the Quakers as a group that has a fundamentally communal orientation, a religious orientation, and they have been at times a remarkably effective political sort of activist block in some places. But it’s certainly a limited sort of power. Here’s the deal. The first thing is, is that kind of community, that’s what people always talk about at Occupy. And I think that that is a lovely thing that people experience, that sense of community. And I think it is a really deep indictment of the culture that they were living in. And so many people had never felt something like that before. There’s a whole conversation that we can have about the demise of traditional communities and religiosity and the roles that they played in fostering the sense of community, et cetera. But fundamentally, none of that is politics.

    I think that one of the traps the left is just forever falling into is coming to believe that being a certain way, being a certain kind of person existing with other certain people in a certain kind of state is inherently a political act when it is not. Politics is something that you do. Morality is something that you do. It’s not something that you are, so you can be in this groovy community and have all the right values and treat each other in a good way, but you’ll be completely inert if you’re not actually using that community as a locus of organizing to change the world. We’ve seen this movie before. That’s exactly what happened with the hippies. There was a very radical, explicitly political side to that whole mission, but also a lot of it was just, “Hey, let’s have sex and do drugs and be cool together.”

    And a ton of those people sort of dropped out and bought communes in Vermont and just gave up on the political process, which is part of why the sixties led eventually to the eighties. It can’t be underestimated the importance of this next part, which is that the left has no choice but to bring overwhelming numbers to bear. Conservatives win when nothing happens. They have a certain home court advantage in that way. And it’s also true that generally speaking, conservatism, and there’s obviously plenty of exceptions to this … but generally speaking, conservatism tends to work for the benefit of the already moneyed and the already sort of socially powerful. So Donald Trump is in office, he can’t get his signature healthcare legislation past his own party, he goes nowhere with immigration, but the one major law that he passes in four years is a tax cut on the rich, and that’s not a coincidence.

    So in order to beat that kind of establishment power, the left just has to have numbers. And the only way that you really get numbers is precisely by not appealing to people’s sense of let’s all be groovy friends together. I think one of the fundamental misconceptions is that left politics are all about self-interest, right? Left politics waged well are not done out of a selfless impulse. Selflessness is great, but you can ask Karl Marx, right? And he’ll tell you that fundamentally people work politically to satisfy their own ends and that hopefully what happens is we come together and we all try to satisfy our own needs, and that does the best for society.

    Susannah: Just a little housekeeping: don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of my conversation with Leah and Fredrik after the break.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I want to push you back here a little bit because I don’t agree with you that conservatives have the advantage of inertia. I think no one really does. And I want to push back a little with the Chesterton quote I like, which is he says, “Conservatism is based on the idea that if you leave things alone, you leave them as they are, but you do not. If you leave a thing alone, you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone, it will soon be a black post. If you want it to be white, you must always be painting it again.” And I think everything, progressive values and conservative values, require active renewal to stay as they are, not to just even drift in the kind of Brownian motion of culture. So I want to push, is conservatism something that really benefits just from inertia, from do nothing? Or does it also erode or change what it is if people aren’t engaged in a project of active renewal?

    Fredrik deBoer: Well, I think that that’s a very good point, but I think that it sort of interfaces with this thing, which is a very reductive but true statement. Leftists want economic power but have cultural power, and conservatives have economic power, but want cultural power. What animates sort of big picture … let’s leave conservative out of it. Let’s say Republican, OK? If you just look at what’s happening in the Republican party and has been happening for years, there is an immense fixation on the cultural side and the cultural war side of politics. Ron DeSantis has decided that the only way that he’s going to beat Donald Trump in a presidential primary is by being Mr. Anti-Woke, by pushing books or whatever into or out of libraries. Whatever the impact of those things are, they’re definitely intended to sort of appeal to a certain vision of cultural and social definition of what it means to be an American, et cetera, et cetera.

    But if you’re sort of looking at things and you’re looking at the effective tax rate of the top 20, top 1, top 0.01 percent in the United States over the past quarter century, you’d be feeling pretty good if you’re a rich person. In other words, the rules are still set up in a way that benefit your interests, whereas on the left, the left makes all the movies and the music, and it sort of sets the agenda on many of the sort of discursive platforms in which we live. But what’s a major victory in terms of a fundamental economic change that was achieved through policy for Americans? You could say the provisions in the Covid emergency bills, I guess so, but that’s all temporary by design. The only thing that sort of moves the needle at all is Obamacare, which happened fourteen years ago, and which for the record was supported by every major insurance company in the country.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think it’s really fascinating to hear you describe the way that you see these things because so many of the people that I talk to about them and generally the way I think about them is you really kind of have to disaggregate. So you’ve seen obviously the quadrant where it’s lower right hand corner is socially progressive, economically sort of liberal, so economically right wing. And that kind of libertarian social progressivism is basically empty. And the upper left hand corner, which is the socially conservative and economically more left, that’s a lot of people. I think when you talk about left and basically, I’m not sure when you say left, do you mean economic left? Because you’re sort of describing economic victories as being the only material victories that the leftists should be aiming at. Not the only, but the major, those are the victories that are not being won. But you also say that the left has cultural power, but that seems to me to be cultural left or socially progressive people as opposed to economically left people.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: There’s no Will and Grace for UBI.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. So there’s no economic left cultural power it seems to me at all. And if there were … it kind of does make sense, how could there be? And also if there were, I know a lot of socially conservative people who would be in favor of it because half of them are extremely economically left. I wonder, how can we think about these things in ways that more reflect what people’s actual interests, if you want to put it that way, are, actual priorities are?

    Fredrik deBoer: Sure.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Is that kind of analysis something that you’ve run into at all?

    Fredrik deBoer: I mean, look, that quadrant of socially conservative and economically progressive, which does not have a lot of magazines or think tanks unlike Libertarianism, which has an immense number of magazines and think tanks and fellowships, et cetera, despite the fact that as you said, one quadrant is full and the other is empty. On the one hand, I mean, the socially conservative, economically liberal thing was more or less the coalition that George W. Bush won the presidency with, so compassionate, conservative. You can argue that there’s a certain level in which Donald Trump is at least playing to that group with his dogged refusal to touch entitlements like social security and Medicare. But on the other hand, the fact that the economically conservative, but socially liberal thing has such a presence in political culture, the fact that Reason magazine exists, whereas I can think of no analog to Reason magazine for the economically liberal and socially conservative side. In fact …

    Susannah Black Roberts: I can think of about eight. Those are like the only places …

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: In fairness, Susannah, I know you’re on the board of half of them, but they don’t have the level of influencer readership that Reason does.

    Fredrik deBoer: I would argue that there’s nothing in that quadrant that is of the influence that the Cato Foundation has been, for example.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, sure. And all the legacy kind of fusionist organizations and the Koch brothers, et cetera.

    Fredrik deBoer: Right.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But it’s just so strange to hear you describe this because from my perspective, basically everyone I know, or not everyone I know because my family are socially progressive, but my whole kind of work life is economic left, socially conservative to a certain degree. And there’s this general sense that is the rising face of that should be …

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Susannah, this is a living on Twitter problem.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s not a living on Twitter problem.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: You know I’m on your side here. It is important to remember that this is not a broad movement. It might be a pitch we can make because I think, Fredrik, this is an interest of yours. What happens if you live too much online and then start to believe that your activism can be shaped by what’s compelling to the people you’re talking to?

    Fredrik deBoer: There is an old sort of, and it’s sort of self-flattering, sort of left liberal perspective, which says it’s the what’s the matter with Kansas sort of thing that many Republican voters are sort of downwardly mobile white people who would benefit the most from social programs. But the Republicans effectively use cultural issues as a wedge to drive them away from the Democrats. I think it’s inarguable or indisputable that sometimes that happens. So, for example, again speaking of George W. Bush again in 2004, it’s remarkable how narrow his victory over John Kerry really was given all the goodwill he had from 9/11. But one of the ways in which he secured it is that Carl Rove had him running really, really hard against gay marriage, an issue, which of course had very, very little influence over the day-to-day lives of most people compared to Medicaid expansion or something like that.

    I guess what I would say is this. It is certainly the case that the language of social justice, which often dabbles in discussions of economic injustice, but is in the aggregate, relentlessly fixated on cultural issues, on social issues, on linguistic issues. The language of social justice has just become the language of institutions in the United States. You have the Department of Energy putting out statements about pronouns and things like that. You have oil companies which are announcing fellowships for Black Lives Matter themed college student internships. You have pride flags fly outside of the headquarters of Goldman Sachs. That is what the left has been able to do is been able to associate a certain kind of base level of respectability with projecting the right sort of concerns. Of course, as you can probably imagine, I think that all of that stuff is meaningless and bullshit. And one of the arguments of the book is that we’ve invested all of our resources into that and gotten almost nothing out of it.

    So the CEO of Lululemon has been getting a ton of praise in a lot of lefty circles because Lululemon fired some employees for confronting shoplifters, and this sort of somehow comports with the whole urge to defund the police and have police abolition. And from my perspective, it’s – look at what we’ve been brought to! celebrating the CEO of Lululemon! So you can understand why from my perspective, there hasn’t really been a major sort of law that significantly changes the economic fortunes of people on the bottom since Obamacare and since Obamacare was transparently and expressly on the part of the Democratic Party, also a handout to the insurance companies so that they would get on board with it. It’s hard not to see a world where the left controls culture and nothing else.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I want to pivot a little to some of your meritocracy work because I think it points to a little bit of the question of what social justice consists of and what’s a hard sell because one thing you talked about in your Cult of Smart book that really stuck with me was I think there was an anecdote about a mom who is an immigrant to America who just kind of casually said when talking about her children, “And that one, not so smart.” And it really spoke to what you’re arguing about, which is that there’s a kind of, I don’t know if you framed it exactly this way, but an inherent dignity to people, and we want to respond to that dignity without making intelligence the bar for value in others because not everyone will clear that bar. And then we’re kind of stuck in the mindset of either having to lie about whether they’ll clear it because we don’t know how to justify treating them well otherwise or getting trapped a different way.

    But I think there’s a huge mindset shift, not just for the elites though particularly there to be able to say, “My kid is not so smart,” and not feel like you’ve said, “My kid is worthless.” So I’m kind of curious for that push on what justice entails, what the human person is. Do you see fronts where that fight is happening, and how do you approach that revaluing of people in your own life?

    Fredrik deBoer: I would say one thing that I would add for the listeners who haven’t read the book is that that mother I’m talking about was Chinese. And obviously in China there’s a big achievement culture, there’s a value of intelligence and of education. But this was a person who was not marinated in American expectations about the kind of things that you did and did not say about her kid, their kids. And I just admired, I was taking aback by, but I admired things like, “Yeah, he’s not very smart.” And as I say in the book, I was there, there was a bunch of people there, and I saw people sort of blanch and sort of like, “What? What did she just say?” But if she had said, “Oh, he doesn’t have an ear for music,” then no one would’ve cared, right? If she had said, “Oh, he’ll never be a great athlete …”

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: It’s very normal in my culture to say you’re not good at sports, and for that even to be a point of pride rather than just neutral, right?

    Fredrik deBoer: Exactly. Not good at art, not good at music, not good at sports, there are all manner of things in which, or even we can say, “Oh, he’s not going to be very tall.” There are all sorts of human attributes that we are readily able to sort of say, “This person is not going to excel in that dimension,” but it’s OK because it’s not assumed to be existential about them. But smart and the whole title Cult of Smart, the whole point is that intelligence is seen as a totalizing statement of human worth. Some of the stuff that didn’t get into the book for various reasons from the editing process was some of the historical stuff where I show that this was not always true, that there are historical examples of people talking about intelligence is just one of many.

    I blame Thomas Dewey among other people. But anyway, the thing that I always just would just point out to people is that first of all, the notion, of course, intelligence is an extremely useful element, useful attribute to have, and it will always be valuable in many domains, and it’s a good thing to have. But, again, so is being tall. And intelligence is a human attribute like any other in that it’s influenced by gene and environmental interactions and that we can’t fully control it. And the point that I was trying to make in the book is that by insisting on a blank slate mindset that says that anyone can be a genius, anyone can be an academic superstar, is actually an extremely cruel thing to do because when people inevitably fail to meet those standards, the only one that they have to blame is themselves. What I’m trying to do in that book is to say, “Look, there’s lots of different ways to be a useful human being, and we all have something to contribute.”

    Our education system right now is set up to favor standardization and to favor a very narrow set of paths into different lives, and that we can continue to have schools continue to teach kids many of the same things in the curriculum, but broaden out the scope of what it means to be educated and to get your diploma and also to sort of reflect the fact that the success pathway of salutatorian to Stanford to Google is just that that’s just not a replicable path for the vast majority of people.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: So, Freddie, I’ve got to push you here because you said everyone has something to contribute. And so Susannah and I agree on that for Christian reasons, but I wanted to ask you, what does that mean, especially in an age with more euthanasia, more medical aid in dying, where there’s more of an idea that even if you do, at some point you might come to the end of justifying yourself where an exit is preferred or even encouraged?

    Fredrik deBoer: Let me answer that question by relating it to the question of what egalitarianism actually means. This will be like the fiftieth podcast I’ve ever said this on, but I feel like I have to keep repeating it. As a self-identified Marxist, I’m constantly told that what I’m asking for is equality, that the purpose of Marxism is equality. But, in fact, equality has never been a political goal of Marxism. And, in fact, Marx and Engels independently of each other arrived at the conclusion that equality is a nonsensical goal. Because any kind of human difference, a preference for mac and cheese over a preference for noodles, whatever, can be expressed as an inequality. The only way to which you’ve actual equality is with a complete lack of differentiating features, which is not possible and not desirable. So what’s the egalitarianism that we do pursue?

    I think that we pursue an egalitarianism of human dignity and the fundamental value of a human life. Why do I think that? I think it’s just derived, for myself, from an observation of the human species, looking at all the different ways in which human beings have flourished and can flourish. Recognizing that some of that flourishing is things like having compassion or being patient or being a good listener or being someone who’s always willing to help or being someone who’s nonjudgmental. These elements of being a useful or high quality or successful human being that are not typically put on a resume are things that I think that people can access even if they are not particularly talented in any given dimension. But it’s also a statement of the fact that I have a kind of prepolitical belief in the sense that basic material security and rights and dignity are not things that are deserved. These are things that are part of our endowment as human beings. How would I philosophically defend the sort of basis through which I derive that belief in equality? I don’t know that I could do it articulately.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I like your use of the word endowment, which obviously has a very particular place in American founding documents, but it has a direct object or additive or something “endowed by.” Do you have a response there?

    Fredrik deBoer: I think that the process of existing as a human being is to observe human beings in states of extreme joy, in extreme sorrow, and in own manner at their best and at their worst and their ugliness and their beauty. And for me, from that process of observation, from looking at what the human species is capable of and what individual people experience and how they interact with each other, that has instilled in me personally a feeling that I have a moral responsibility to, in whatever small way, help them be put into position in their life in which they can …

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Freddie, there’s no way I can let you get away with that for me. Is that for you in … we can all come to observe the world and come to false assumptions about the world by observing it. But is this for you in the same sense of, but if anyone else studied physics, I expect we’d hit on the same answers because physics is out there even if some of us make mistakes while studying it? Or is it for you in a much more personal and non-extended sense?

    Susannah Black Roberts: I like vanilla ice cream. So is this something that’s like a feature of humans and reality that anyone ought to be able or really you would expect everyone to be able to ideally come to? Yes, humans have been given, in some sense are endowed with this value and ought to be given this dignity. Is that a feature of reality at least in your perception?

    Fredrik deBoer: Here’s where I have the advantage as someone who does not believe in a transcendent intelligence or a consciousness beyond consciousness. In a world in which you don’t imagine that there is some sort of supreme vision of someone who sort of conveys value and determines value for me is all we got, right?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Is that also true of physics? Is that also true of physics, Freddie?

    Fredrik deBoer: I think that physics is useful. I don’t know if physics is true. The value of things like mathematics and science is not revealed by their truth value, it’s revealed by their use value. So the fact that physics has enabled us to build planes that don’t fall out of the sky reveals it to be useful. And so whether it’s true is not of great relevance to me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What about the law of non-contradiction?

    Fredrik deBoer: You mean like …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Is that true? What …

    Fredrik deBoer: Are we talking about married bachelors here?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, sort of. So what you’ve just said, you’ve made a claim about reality that physics is useful, but not necessarily true. Somebody else might make a claim about reality saying physics actually describes the truth of the world or say mathematics, like two plus two equals four. You might say, “Well, that might be true for you,” or you might be able to use those kinds of mathematical tools to make something that works, but two plus two equals four is not a feature of reality. Someone else might say, “Oh, but I think it is a feature of reality.” Can both of your claims be true at the same time?

    Fredrik deBoer: I think that as you will concede, the effort to actually get down to the actual foundational truth that is not derived from induction and an experience has really proven to be a bust in the last couple hundred years. Like Bertrand Russell, for example, considered the second half of his life a waste because he spent so much of it trying to explain the foundations of mathematics in elementary logic only for his students to demonstrate that that’s impossible, right? I just think that there’s been an awful lot of attempts to find this fundamental reality that explains and supports itself. And absent that thing, I’m just going to have to go with my own moral instincts as imperfect as they may be.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So it’s been a bust if you’re seeking a materialist sort of understanding. Obviously, Bertrand Russell was committed to that. Leah and I are both kind of Platonists and were Platonists, I think, before we were Christians.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: That’s right.

    Susannah Black Roberts: From our perspective, that bust has been a big, big, big red flag. There’s a couple of things that you’ve described. You’ve described this based on observation of humans and all their weirdness and horribleness and wonderfulness, you have observed they have an endowment of dignity and ought to be given value and ought to be treated in ways that reflect that value. That’s something that you’ve come to as though you’re perceiving it. You’re perceiving it the way that I might perceive I’m looking outside right now at a porch, and there’s a swinging seat on the porch. Obviously, you’re not perceiving it with your eyesight, but you’re perceiving it nevertheless. Why not trust that perception?

    Fredrik deBoer: Well, let me cut to the chase here. I will concede that like most people in my position, you can fairly say that I am a nonbeliever who has moral foundations that are derived from whether I like it or not, the sort of philosophical tradition which was itself based on theological assumptions. In other words, I could tell you that it’s all turtles or I could tell you the fact that I’ve emerged from a tradition that sort of starts in a place where theological assumptions were assumed to be woven into the fabric of what we consider morality. And that then down a long, long line, philosophical thinking and writing, they emerge at my particular moral values. All I can tell you is that from my limited and contingent point of view, the sort of inherent dignity and value of human beings slaps me in the face every time I observe human beings. And from a practical point of view, I feel that I have no choice but to take that seriously.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I agree with you. You also said that you grew up in a Marxist household.

    Fredrik deBoer: That’s right. Yep.

    Susannah Black Roberts: My dad grew up … his parents were Trotskyists, so there was a lot of that in there. And I guess a lot of where I ended up coming to was this all, what you’ve described about human beings seems to again slap me in the face every time I look at them. You could argue that Marx came out of a Judeo-Christian long tradition of valuing humans and was a kind of secularized version of that. Because he was a secularized and kind of historical materialist version of that, it seems to me that he kind of knocked the props out from under the things that he was aiming to, the reasons that he was aiming to get to this more just world in the first place. Is that a tension that you’ve experienced?

    Fredrik deBoer: Yeah. I have to say that I probably spend a lot less time on fundamental foundational questions about the origins of morality than you guys do. I certainly did spend a lot of time doing that back in college. I’ll put it this way. I come from a background, like you said, I grew up in Marxist household, although for the record, my parents went to church.

    I come from a background of a particular school of left wing socialist traditional history. It’s deeply influenced by Marx and by Proudhon and Bakunin and Kropotkin, et cetera, et cetera, and it is an effort to look at the history of the world and say, going way, way back, there have at least been arguments about a certain level of fundamental equality between human beings.

    Certainly there are many traditions that deny that equality. The notion of hereditary monarchy and hereditary aristocracy are pretty much explicitly based on the idea that human beings are not all equal, but there’s also been a sort of a counter narrative that human beings sort of deserve equal rights and equal opportunity, et cetera. And that is the vision that over time has become this sort of expressly dominant point of view at least in Western perspective that almost no one’s sort of explicit philosophy, whether political or otherwise, does not accept the idea that human beings are in some sense entitled to certain kinds of equality.

    Now, as I’ve said many times, I don’t believe in equality of either opportunity or of outcomes because they’re nonsensical, but there is something that is sort of shared between everyone. And the observation about history is that even after that has become the dominant assumption, we have all of these systems in place that prevent that kind of basic equality at the beginning, at conception, at birth, et cetera, and the point is to sort of point out the ways in which the system is hypocritical for systematically denying that equality even while it celebrates that equality in the abstract. Obviously, the classic example of this is the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which articulates these grand soaring values of equality of man at a time in which human beings were being bought and sold in the same country. But that’s just a particularly ugly and explicit vision of what we’re talking about.

    And right now we’re in a country where there are extremely different life circumstances at birth that you don’t choose. You can’t choose your parents. What I tried to introduce in the conversation in Cult of Smart is also that you also can’t choose your genetic endowment and that in the current moment, not having a natural predisposition towards certain kinds of cognitive skills holds you back. I’m asking people to wonder, OK, moral foundations aside, is there not a big gulf between our stated beliefs in universal human dignity, et cetera, and the actual lived experience of how we process people through our system in a way that produces systemic inequality? I don’t know if you would call that a moral system, but that’s what I got.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I feel like I want to get you back on to pressing more on all these things, but we should probably wrap now. Freddie, thank you so much for coming on and letting us nag you in various ways.

    Fredrik deBoer: I had a great time. Thanks.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Both books are fantastic. We will drop links to both in the show notes. Thanks again, and I hope to have you on again.

    Fredrik deBoer: All right. Thank you very much.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By FredrikdeBoer Fredrik deBoer

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    Contributed By LeahLibrescoSargeant Leah Libresco Sargeant

    Leah Libresco Sargeant runs Other Feminisms, a Substack community focused on interdependence.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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