Newsletter #34: The US Right’s New Dreams, with Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell

by William Harris

A commonplace narration of the US left’s past decade goes something like this. After a long leftist slumber, the Occupy movement flashed spectacularly onto the post-2008 scene, returning questions of material inequality to US political discourse before quickly coming to a dead end. Its political vision drifting windily towards anarchism, Occupy opted not to make demands of or engage with state power; instead, it imagined its own participatory alternative to our decrepit political institutions and tried its best to realize it in the here and now. This seemed beautiful, for a moment, and then, with the interventions of winter and the police, fleeting.

The Left rummaged for a new political strategy. What it found were two things: a vision of long-haul labor organizing, crystallized by Jane McAlevey’s book No Shortcuts (once the subject of a Dig interview), and a vision of state power, represented by the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and the Squad. This new strategy has enjoyed labor organizing wins of late, but also, aside from a few progressive cities, electoral plateaus. Its future appears uncertain.

One of many takeaways from The Dig’s new interview with Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell, journalists and hosts of one of my favorite non-basketball podcasts Know Your Enemy, is that the US right may be arcing a deceptively similar trajectory.

A decade ago, as Sitman says, to be young and on the Right was to be a libertarian. But many of today’s right-wing intellectuals have grown wary of the Reaganite obsession with peeling back the welfare state or dreaming up Randian sea-steading utopias, just as many have grown wary of the useful disruption but ultimate incompetence of Trump’s leadership. They now want to wield state power, not just lay waste to it, embracing ideologically the power of repressive state apparatuses long employed in practice by the Right, as well as supporting new ideas of patriarchal and racialized welfare. Their dreams linger over the coming of a new galvanizing figurehead.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell here.

From anarchism to socialism, from libertarianism to Caesarism: at a time of neoliberal senescence, amid this deceptively paralleled turn to state power, it is crucial to highlight the glaring differences. While the Right flirts with dictatorship, the Left’s vision of state power is rooted in democracy: in the participatory dream of taking popular control of state institutions and wielding them for the collective good, rather than for the benefit of an elite. To quote the great Tanzanian Marxist Issa Shivji: “Those who preach socialism must first learn to practice democracy.” Not least terrifying about the Right is that it needn’t bother.

Further Reading For related Dig listening, check out our first interview with the Know Your Enemy hosts, on the history of the conservative intelligentsia. And to learn more about Matthew Sitman’s turn from conservatism to democratic socialism, alluded to in passing in the interview, read Sitman’s 2016 piece in Dissent, “Leaving Conservatism Behind”.