Newsletter #37: Building a Better World When the Old One Has Been Eviscerated, with Matt Christman

by William Harris

In what feels like some previous century but was actually a mere half decade ago, Jeet Heer wrote an article in the New Republic called “The Dirtbag Left and the Problem of Dominance Politics.” The piece was a polemic against the podcast Chapo Trap House. Heer argued that the podcast’s brash, comic style belonged more properly to the alt-right than the democratic-socialist left, and that it struck a futile tone for a movement that needed to persuade rather than mock liberals.

The piece launched a small Twitter tempest. Why, critics wondered, did every article about millennial socialism swirl around podcasts? Was no one capable of writing about left organizing?

I found Heer’s response incredible. No less of a great Marxist literary critic than Fredric Jameson, I recall him saying, instructed us to pay attention not just to politics but to culture, and so here Heer was, doing the worthy Marxist work of analyzing the culture of America’s nascent socialist movement. I thought of old, squinting Jameson, sitting in his dim, book-strewn office at Duke University, pondering a career coinciding with socialism’s historical nadir in which he spent his time inventing sophisticated Marxist models for analyzing everything from James Joyce to Jaws. What would he think of our moment, in which socialism had crawled back to life, dragging alongside it its most prized new cultural marvel: podcasts?

Regardless of its absurdity, the Twitter dust-up opened the door to a question that each historical moment has to ask itself anew: what is the relation between culture and politics? It’s a question that Dan asks this week on a new episode with Chapo Trap House cohost Matt Christman.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

Christman’s immediate answer is compelling: in our culture-war era, politics is nothing but culture. But it becomes more compelling when placed alongside points he makes elsewhere in the interview. With America’s settler-colonial promise — class mobility through real estate — now frayed in a post-2008 world, party politics stands in a more or less meaningless relation to the material conditions of the vast majority of our lives. Government can punish — strip away abortion rights, say — but it can do nothing to positively transform material misery.

Faced with this impasse, we need to organize “below politics,” as Christman says. We need to organize at the level of culture — if by culture we mean a whole way of life, beyond the confines of parliamentary spectacle and social atomization. As Christman says at the end of the interview, we need to come together in “small groups collected around common experiences,” whether in work, housing, or our neighborhoods, to start the slow, everyday task of building a new world. The upshot of this organizing is that if it succeeds in transforming our culture — our everyday world of experience — it may allow us to transform our politics.

Further Reading

For more reading on culture and politics, read this wonderful essay in Places Journal on how early Swedish social democrats created People’s Parks and People’s Houses, “crucial cultural sites where the fragile coalition forming around union solidarity and political rights gained strength.” And for more Dig listening on the thinning fabric of US social life and how we can organize to thicken it, revisit our interview with Gabriel Winant on “The Social Question.”