Newsletter #14: Building Left Power in Disorienting Times, with Aziz Rana, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Wendy Brown

by William Harris

What sort of times are we living through? As legal scholar Aziz Rana puts it in a blockbuster new Diginterview that also features fellow Digsuperguests Nikhil Pal Singh, a historian, and Wendy Brown, a political philosopher, we live in a moment “consumed by history.” Nostalgia suffuses our politics. Myths of a vanished world of white, male breadwinners benignly lording over devout nuclear families propel an ever-zanier series of endless culture wars. “Critical Race Theory,” trans people using bathrooms, the politics of mask-wearing and vaccine mandates — the Right has become incredibly adept at politicizing manufactured controversies to strip away or capture the institutions of representative democracy, from local school boards to the Supreme Court, the gerrymandering of electoral districts to draconian voter ID laws.

These particular culture wars are at once, as Singh reminds us, “ruptural,” or genuinely new political phenomena, and “continuous,” part of a long American postwar story. With this in mind, our guests try to figure out how exactly to conceive of our moment. Does the Right have a positive political project, or is it now merely destructive? How should the Left respond to a disorienting culture war terrain in which the stage seems always set by the Right? And in a time of ecological devastation, US imperial decadence, and democratic erosion, the age-old question still presents itself: how can the Left build power?

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Aziz Rana, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Wendy Brown here.

Building Left institutional power requires taking stock of the existing institutional landscape. Our guests map the major institutions within the broad left-of-center field and debate which ones, if any, might allow us to push forward socialist politics. Real disagreements arise — over how much primacy to afford the labor movement, and over how the Left can organize the unorganized — and we end up without “easy answers,” as Singh wrote on Twitter. But two takeaways stand out.

We come away with a rare synthetic view of the present, equally attendant to the longue durée of neoliberalism and the insane rush of the day’s news cycle. We come away, too, with a rare sense of hope. We live in a time “consumed by history,” to quote Rana again, when the “past order has broken down, and yet we don’t really have an idea of what’s going to come next.” This can open the door to useless and even reactionary nostalgia, but it can also invite us to learn anew from the dreams and achievements of past Left movements — and to feel our own time, despite its bleakness, as up for grabs.

Further Reading

Two recent essays discuss complementary issues. As Dan references in the interview, a new New York Times essay by Corey Robin analyzes why Biden’s presidency has left us with “a sense of stuckness . . . that no amount of social spending or policy innovation can seem to dislodge.” At Tribune, Anton Jäger explores how we traveled from the post-political years of neoliberalism’s heyday to a new age of “hyper-politics,” in which everything is politicized but very little leads to political organization.

For related Diglistening, check out Wendy Brown’s interview on her book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism and Nikhil Pal Singh and Joe Lowndes’s debate on the US right.