Why hypocrisy is good, actually

May 13, 2019 (1333 words) :: Or at least, why charges of hypocrisy against the left aren't necessarily a killer argument.
Tags: the-left

This post is day 133 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Here’s something leftists get accused of a lot: hypocrisy.

Sometimes the charge stems from a hawk-like policing of their consumption habits, as I’ve written about in a previous fragment: how dare socialists criticise Apple’s labour practices yet still use iPhones? How can they order off Amazon or take Ubers if they know the workers are underpaid and denied collective bargaining rights?

In some cases, consumer boycotts are useful, especially when part of a coordinated worker-led action (the recent Uber being strike being a case in point). But on its own, the consumer boycott is not a substitute for broader political change. In any case, anti-capitalism is a systemic critique, not a how-to guide. It’s not an attempt to achieve individual moral superiority in the sphere of consumption; instead, it’s about ensuring collective fairness in the sphere of production. Accusations of hypocrisy seem like a case of confusing the domain of the critique: the argument isn’t that owning an iPhone is bad, but rather that iPhones are currently being produced under deplorable conditions. Personal boycotts of Apple products by socialists would be neither a necessary nor a sufficient step to achieve the demand of better conditions along Apple’s supply chain.

A similar sort of hypocrisy mania emerged in the wake of Bernie’s tax returns being released. How dare someone who calls himself a socialist be a millionaire? How dare he save up the money he’s earned from working white-collar political jobs and writing best-selling books over the past several decades? Never mind that saving money is exactly the sort of thing the system requires you to do if you want any sort of financial security, and that when you’re 76 years old, you kind of need financial security; no, Bernie’s a hypocrite. He got millions in royalties from writing books? Well, he should have just chosen to not profit from them:

Look, I’m like the biggest Creative Commons fan you’ll ever meet, and even I think this proposal is ludicrous. It would be absolutely amazing if all books were released under CC, but there are structural reasons that this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and it is dumb as hell to blame authors for this. If you want your book to reach a mass audience, you’ll probably want a print version distributed through a major publisher, a process which will require the buy-in of established players in the industry. Some authors have been able to convince their publisher to make their work available through CC licenses alongside print copies (Cory Doctorow is a notable example), but this isn’t easy, and it is not always feasible given publishers’ low margins. (I personally would have loved for the electronic copy of my book to be released through CC, but it’s just not economically viable for my publisher.) It’s just not how the industry works. In the future, under a socialist government, you can imagine an industry with much more relaxed IP laws as well as some level of government funding to make content more widely available, but this is not something one author is able to achieve on their own. Bernie has more pressing battles to fight at this juncture.

I suspect this outrage stems from the (misguided) belief that you do not truly uphold your values unless you are personally living them out. I get echoes of this perspective in some parts of the left, too, where it manifests as a zealous commitment to prefigurative politics even to the point where it might alienate others or prevent you from building a mass movement. The Richard Stallman approach, in other words: an individualised model of social change that begins with you personally avoiding contact with anything you find problematic, rather than actively working to change those things on a structural level.

This isn’t to say that prefigurative politics is worthless. It is a useful thing to aim for in many scenarios, especially when it comes to social relations within activist movements: if you’re fighting against sexism or racism, then your movement should at least try to avoid promoting sexist or racist values internally. But when it comes to individual actions that go beyond interpersonal relations, whether you’re prefiguring the world you’d like to see is not the only relevant frame of analysis. There are other mitigating factors, as well. You might personally abhor Fox News, but if the people you want to reach are watching it, it might be useful to appear on it. Likewise, you might not like the idea of intellectual property, but if you want to build a mass movement capable of challenging it, you might have to get your ideas out there through established channels which do make use of intellectual property. It’s not ideal, but sometimes you have to be pragmatic while keeping your eye on the bigger goal.

The final kind of hypocrisy I want to talk about stems from the possibility that people on the left are inherently incapable of living up to the values they preach. This isn’t an angle that’s often discussed, but I think it’s worth considering as a form of self-criticism.

At its core, the left project is a utopian one, with the goal of fundamentally transforming the social relations we all live under. One consequence of this ambitious goal is that the people in the movement right now - who are developing its theoretical underpinnings, and are organising for a different world - are not always the ideal subjects for the world they’re trying to build. No one knows what that world will look like, and those of us who are lucky enough to see it may not even fit well within it. We all live finite lives, after all, and we can only adapt so much during our lifetimes.

Is this a bad thing? It sure sounds that way, but I think it’s just a consequence of having an ambitious political horizon. Any political project that desires real change must come to terms with the limitations of its subjects, and how those limitations are expressed in the formulation of the project and the way it’s enacted. None of us are perfect, and even the most ardent socialists will behave in ways that seemingly contradict their anti-capitalist beliefs.

That’s not an excuse for shitty behaviour; it’s more a recognition that it’s sometimes inevitable, if your principles are idealistic enough. To take this “hypocrisy” as a wholesale refutation of leftist ideology would be to miss the point. Even if you have the most incisive possible critique of the system under which you live, at the end of the day, you still have to live in it. There will always a tension between the tendencies and subjectivities that you want, and what superstructural forces have conditioned you to become. Being on the left is a story of perpetually trying and failing to become the person you think you should be.

Ultimately, we are building a world for people who are better than us, people who are less prejudiced and less atomised and less seduced by the commodity form. We will not build that world overnight, and neither will we become the ideal subjects of that world overnight. Some people will never fully adjust to whatever new subjectivity is required in the world that emerges from the ashes of this one. But that’s okay, because they won’t be around forever, and hopefully there will be new people to take their place, people who will grow up in this new world and will be shaped by it. Society has a built-in renewal process; all we can hope for is that it gets better with each iteration.

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