Say a large asteroid collided with the earth, and instead of smashing open the brief rocky surface of our planet like the skin of a popped balloon, the thing started to roll. Bouncing white-hot through the valleys, tearing open the seas, crushing entire cities: deep gashes scored into the world wherever it goes. But this thing is lumpy, irregular. Things stick to its surface – splintered forests, splattered creatures, even homes, even people. It’s woozy and nauseous, but you could survive on the surface of this rolling asteroid for six or seven revolutions before it finally wobbles on its axis and crushes you. And when the rock starts to slow, just a little, that’s long enough. Small communities of people hide out in its hollows, and before long they start to get ideas about where the rock ought to go. In my opinion, we should limit the damage: steer this thing south, towards the Sahara. The rock veers northwards, indifferent to all the ideas swirling on its surface, and smashes into another medium-sized city. Another million dead: this is all your fault…
That’s you. If you have any political opinions whatsoever, this is you: lifted up in the churn of history, rolled around for a moment while you scream your objections, and then crushed.
‘One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature.’ But nature is being deformed to fit the contours of the intellect. Every year or so, another study proves that people with different political opinions conceive of the world in wildly different ways: our brains are wired differently, it extends right down to the level of the biological. Our enemies are simply not like ourselves. They have an extra row of teeth. If you tried to eat their food, you’d die; they slurp on poison, chemical sludge or deadly mushrooms from the other side of the world.
At the same time, it’s contagious. Did you know that if you fuck someone with bad opinions, you’re implicitly endorsing their prejudices? Did you know that your primary responsibility as a politically engaged person is to make sure everyone in your immediate family has the same beliefs as you? If you go to the hospice, make sure your dying granddad knows about white supremacy. Do some good in the world: see if you can get him to croak the phrase trans rights, one last agonised pharyngeal wheeze, to crack open the insides of his withered tubes…
Meanwhile, among the reactionary intellectuals, every bad thing that happens is reducible down to leftism: too many people with the wrong kind of opinion. The United States is forced into a broadly hilarious retreat from Afghanistan: this is because the military is too busy caring about microaggressions and gender-fluidity to actually make war. The fighters in the hills and the thousands of years of history sedimented under their feet vanish; it’s all just different opinions lapping against each other, in the op-ed pages and inside your phone. People are unhappy, atomised, and poor: no need to think about the composition of capital or the technological base of society; this is leftism eroding traditional values, wokeness in action, the residue of ideas. What do these people want? Most of all, free speech: other people must take their opinions seriously.
Deeply stupid stuff, but of course the left are just the same. People with political opinions like to work out the precise psychopathology of the other side: this is how capitalism or soybeans have smoothed out their brains; this is why so much nonsense comes out of their mouths. As if vast social forces only affect people with one set of beliefs, and leave everyone else unscathed.
The primary division in society is no longer class, or even race or gender: it’s between the good and the bad, determined by different varieties of thought. In the lumpen version of antiracism that’s still pretty much dominant, racial inequalities are the result of people deciding to have racist ideas, and if you want to abolish those inequalities you need to start interrogating your own ideas. The capitalist mode of production fades into the background, and every problem is eventually reducible to the people with the bad thoughts, who conjured this nightmare world directly out of their own heads through a magical process we’re doomed to imitate for the rest of our lives.
Politics is now so much about opinions that it’s difficult to imagine it could have ever been about anything else. But it was. Not very long ago, the left did not, strictly speaking, exist. There were communists and socialists – but to be a communist or a socialist meant that you were part of a body, an institution, a party or a union, something capable of marshalling large numbers of people to enforce the changes it wished to see. This was not something you were, but something you did: the ‘real movement which abolishes the present state of things.’ Someone who simply happened to agree with socialist positions was a fellow-traveller, and while such people are nice to have around – I’m one myself – they don’t really do anything at all.
The left is a movement made entirely out of fellow-travellers, people held together by a coincidence of opinion. A left is always a tendency within another institution. See Lenin and his diatribes against ‘left-wing communism’: communism was not part of the left; the left was a faction – or a symptom – within communism. Today, those institutions are the Democratic Party in the US and the Labour Party in the UK. Belonging to the left simply meant that you agreed with Corbyn and Sanders – and once those two nice old men were bumped off by their political adversaries, the movements that had coalesced in their name simply vanished into fine threads of thought.
True, sometimes people try to rebuild the old institutions. Every legacy media outfit and creepy tech firm is now unionising: staffers with their fists raised, playing pretend: I’m like a coal miner! I’m a worker too! Sometimes the management are even briefly spooked, but they needn’t be. These unions are not a threat. More often than not, these people simply don’t know what to demand; in the end, they usually end up asking for the right to adjudicate on the opinions of others. Media unions want editorial oversight; tech unions want a greater voice in what opinions should be unsayable on their platforms. Eject the bad people from our asteroid! But the thing keeps rolling, and everything in its path is destroyed.