Finding the breadcrumbs

April 17, 2019 (1055 words) :: I found the left at a time of my life when I was forced to admit that I didn't actually know as much about the world as I thought I did.
Tags: personal, the-left

This post is day 107 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

The beginnings of my fascination with the left coincided with the decline of my confidence that I knew everything I needed to know about the world. This was around the end of 2016, after the ill-fated US presidential election, when I was left absolutely shocked by what felt like the collapse of everything I believed in. I just did not know what to do.

For a while, I kept consuming the same liberal content that I had previously consumed - the same sources that told me that Hillary Clinton was definitely going to win, and also that Bernie Sanders was unelectable and anyway it was her turn to be president. (I believed it, at the time.) After the election, though, all of this stuff just ceased to ring my cherries. As I wrote in an earlier fragment:

In the waning days of 2016, I would watch late-night liberal pundits like Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver for updates on the so-called resistance, and I found myself getting more and more frustrated, to the point where I stopped being able to watch those shows. The very political terrain had been upended, and yet mainstream Democrats were still embracing the notion of Beltway civility, acting as if bipartisanship were the most important thing. Rather than actually challenging their opponents, and moving the Overton window as a result, they were compromising with them, and accepting their terms of debate as their own.

I was starting to consider the possibility that the Democratic establishment may not actually be the good guys, and they certainly weren’t going to save us. Before, I hadn’t really realised that a Democratic “establishment” even existed, with its members holding ideological and even material interests that could be distinctly opposed to those of Democratic voters.

This is highly embarrassing to think about, but I had honestly thought that I knew basically everything I needed to know about the world, by this point in my early 20’s. I guess I was afflicted with the particular kind of arrogance often associated with software engineers and other tech types - I have a technical skillset that’s highly in demand in the job market, so I know everything, right? Who needs social sciences or humanities courses (I took neither, in college) when you have logic and reason?

Thanks to the confused political moment that launched in the wake of that fateful election night, I began to realise the limitations of my understanding of the world. I felt really dumb, in other words. I felt like I was missing something.

It so happened that while this was going on, my startup - which had been my main preoccupation for the preceding 2+ years - was slowly crumbling. We were trying to pivot away from our original business model (which, in hindsight, was a little past its time, not to mention extremely creepy) and toward something that we all wanted to work on. Sadly, this search for a better business model turned out to be largely futile.

When I look back on that period now, I want to laugh; it all seems so trivial. At the time, though, it felt like the end of the world, and my mental state was a bouquet of variegated misery. I was going through the motions of showing up to the office and brainstorming ideas, but really I was stuck in a somnambulistic stupor. I wasn’t excited about anything I was doing. Worst of all, I didn’t know what I should be doing differently.

It’s kind of funny that these separate strands of shittiness somehow combined to catalyse what turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. When it started to dawn on me that my understanding of the world was naive and I should probably try to deepen it, part of me was like, nah, who cares, that’s not important, I’ll just keep watching my late-night talk shows and reading my liberal publications. But another part of me thought, you know what, I don’t have anything better to do anyway; maybe I should just read books and see where that takes me.

Obviously, I took the latter route. And it was definitely an unstructured, aimless path at first. I did not feel any less dumb, for a while. After all, I didn’t even really know what I was looking for, and I certainly had no guarantee that I would ever find it. It felt like navigating an unfamiliar forest with a dimly-lit lantern, trying to follow a trail of breadcrumbs that were nearly indistinguishable from pebbles.

But eventually, I started to feel less dumb, and like I was onto something real. One breadcrumb I remember vividly was coming across a highly critical definition of neoliberalism in a piece of literary criticism in the field of David Foster Wallace studies. (Incidentally, I talked about this in an interview for an article on David Foster Wallace over at The Outline.) Until then, I had assumed neoliberalism was just a meaningless slur that Bernie Bros hurled at Hillary Clinton supporters because they didn’t understand that politics requires compromise, or something. I had never bothered to interrogate what the term actually meant.

And yet, here it was, in this arcane piece of literary scholarship about an author I happened to like. In parsing this definition, I was instantly confronted with the possibility that I was not actually as politically informed as I thought I was. (What exactly was “privatisation”, and why was it apparently bad …? And I thought NAFTA was a good thing …? Shit, maybe I needed to read more.) I had gotten a glimpse of what seemed like a coherent, rigid, and intellectually exciting analytical framework that I had no idea even existed. I thought: how did I not know about this earlier? And: how do I learn about it now?

To cut a long story short, I ended up reading like ten million books and listening to a lifetime’s worth of podcasts and subscribing to every left publication on the face on the planet and now I am maybe 50% of the way toward understanding what neoliberalism is. I still have a long way to go, in other words. But at least I feel like I know where the breadcrumbs are, now.

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