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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



Unwanted thoughts

You can hear in the background of this blog, like a creek at the end of a field, a constant wash of attitudes changing. Not much, to be honest, or not as much as I’d hope. At the end of college, a friend of mine was terrified of backing into just one role, ending up stuck in just one life. I, optimistic and insufferable, told her that I was looking forward to transforming into many different people, bouncing around the mental state-space as the world changed around me. The truth seems to be that you can steer between these two camps, and thank god. How we change is under some of our control, or it feels that way.

There’s certainly a lot of character pinballing around, with those slow Ron Paul->Bernie arcs being overtaken by Mises->Nazi, SomethingAwful->Tankie, PostModern->Mencius, KPop->Antifa, slam tilts. One constant that I see people in their forties and above refer to is the old pseudo-Churchillian (maybe Batbie? Maybe Burke? Probably anonymous Tory.) line: “If you are not a democrat/liberal/socialist at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35 you have no brain”, followed generally by a humblebrag that they’ve switched from being a liberal as a youth to being, in these present times, a flaming communist by thirty-five.

This one lands weirdly for me because, in some ways, being a Labor-left, unionizing, nationalizing, we’ll see the Red Flag flying here, type, is, within my messed-up internal political compass, actually pretty old school. I was raised on the Left. At that time, it felt like less of a political stance and more like a refugee movement. In the UK and US, that branch of the Left was summarily ejected from the electoral power it needed to execute its plans, and nobody seemed to have good ideas on how to get it back. Chernobyl and the collapse of the Soviet Union were, to that whole ideological space, what the 2008 recession was to free-market, free-trade fans — an undeniable, universally damaging unwinding of the best arguments for its dominance. Something like, “In the Nineties at twenty-five, if you weren’t seriously questioning socialism, you had no friends; if you were not spending some time considering the benefits of neoliberalism at 35, you probably had no job.” (Don’t write in, I know you met a lot of cool people at Red Wedge, I’m just trying to bend the quote to fit, dammit.)

Anyway, when I hang out these days with the youngsters quoting theory at each other, I am thrown backward, not forward in time. I got into Benjamin Franklin when I first came to America — a very 2000s thing to do, but also, obviously, pretty 1770s of me too. Eventually, I snapped out of it by thinking: I’m pretty sure Peak Nation-Building did not end in the late 18th century, and there may have been more advancements in political science by non-bewigged professionals since then.

On the other hand, I definitely would not have considered upgrading to Marx as much improvement. Partly because it would only have been a jump forward from the founding fathers by fifty years or so, but mostly because it would have felt like a shift backward for me personally, to 1979. It would have been an act of internal conservatism. 

I guess now, faced with new information, I should thrash ahead to a new neo-Marxist vision. Alas! I am not changing as quickly as I did. The lightcone of my character has been narrowing since my thirties. Back then, I would amuse myself by wondering what it would be like to be an aging hippy of the future. And here I am, as 90s as they were 60s: Eyes blurring with tears, I will, unprompted, relate how you can almost see, with the right eyes, the high-water mark on the Internet, where the decentralization revolution washed over the world, and then broke and fell back. Re-litigating long-dead arguments about SMTP and NNTP as much as I heard warmed-over fights about the SWP or SDS in my youth; thinking myself a radical who avoided the Churchill rails, but actually a conservative sitting athwart any progress.

But! There is a twist here, and I clutch onto it. The weird thing about the Left in the eighties was that it kept its beat, even if that wasn’t the main rhythm of the time. It is hard now to describe how sidelined it was and how it held itself together, even when everything– at least in the anglosphere — was working against its success. I remember thinking: how odd and inspiring to keep on believing in something when everything conspires (maybe through class war, maybe through your own movement’s recent fuck-ups) to undermine your conclusions.

Grudging respect! I thought unpopular thoughts at the time (“information wants to be free!”, “fast, cheap and out of control!”, “we reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code”), but they weren’t actively being rejected – they just weren’t very well known at the time. While they were obscure, they had the advantage of fitting the current setting; they made predictions, and then the predictions came true. So when more people came to believe them, it wasn’t a surprise. It was barely a validation. Like those old school (with a slave-owning asterisk) heroes would say, we held those truths to be self-evident.

So brave to think new thoughts: but holding onto your beliefs when they’re well-known and yet disregarded is another matter entirely. I ignored the Left in the eighties because it was both well-explored and curiously mismatched to the world I saw around me. You can put that down to insidious capitalist propaganda: but, again, the fecundity of thought at the time came, for me, from imagining a world outside stagflation and the 70s, plotting an escape from a utopian vision whose roof had fallen in. 

And yet, some people stuck around to carefully rebuild the roof: tedious thankless work.

So, ironically — conservatively? — the lesson I’ve learned is that there¬†is¬†some value to being an aging hippy, to be a person who squats on creaking knees with the tired ideas of the last decade and learns the lessons, and stitches on patches, in a quiet corner. The fact that the Left managed to roar back into relevance the moment the last age wobbled is perhaps why leftist thinking has evolved the way it has. It’s designed to pop back up. And if that’s so, maybe it’s resilient to be unwanted for a while. Sometimes we make a wrong turn and need to back up a little to go forward again.

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petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.