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19 August 2023

Freddie deBoer: elite identity politics is destroying the left

The Marxist essayist and author on the real reason Black Lives Matter and other protest movements failed.

By Freddie Hayward

Freddie deBoer despises piety. He’s a Marxist atheist, so that’s to be expected. But he also resents the secular piety of American liberals, whom he holds partly responsible for the failure of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Not a single major legislative achievement resulted, despite it being arguably the largest protest in American history.

In his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, the essayist and left-wing organiser lambasts progressive movements as “forever wandering from the righteous to the ridiculous”. DeBoer thinks BLM – whose leaders and media cheerleaders obsessed over language and symbolism, he says, not black people’s material needs – shows the left must return to class-based politics rather than fixating on identity.

He locates BLM’s failure in elite capture. It was a movement of the elite, by the elite, and for the elite. What started as a noble demand for racial justice became focused on recasting black characters in animated films previously played by white actors. “Could this really be a response to watching an innocent man be strangled to death in the street?” writes deBoer. After renaming the movement “Black Professional-Managerial Class Lives Matter”, deBoer argues that the obsession with culture was rooted in the relative wealth of its leaders in non-profit organisations, the media and academia. Materially comfortable, culture became their political outlet.

This elite dominance of the movement led to imprecise demands. Its main slogan – “Defund the Police” – meant total police abolition to some, and reduced police funding to others. However pure the intention, the lack of clarity rendered reform unviable. More importantly, its demands were unaligned with the median black person. DeBoer cites polling that suggests three-quarters of black Americans wanted the same or more police spending in their area.

During that oppressively hot summer, voicing such nuance became dangerous to one’s career. Fear pervaded. “That Black Lives Matter was not to be criticised was simply assumed,” deBoer writes. Without debate, correcting mistakes was impossible. Censoriousness, he believes, contributed to the movement’s failures.

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When I spoke to deBoer via video link from his home on the Connecticut coast he said he didn’t believe a major publisher would have accepted his book in 2021. The pugnacity and mutual surveillance at the time reminded him of post-9/11 America. But “you can only keep a muscle tense for so long”, he said. “By 2022 the air had just been let out of the balloon enough that there was more room for contentious ideas.”

Like BLM, the Democratic Party is dominated by an elite, he argues. “You have an intellectual class, within liberalism, within the Democratic Party, full of people who have never suffered,” deBoer said. “When that’s true… politics becomes a virtue contest. Politics is completely immaterial to [a member of the elite]. You will not suffer if a Republican goes into the White House. It won’t make a difference to you if they cut Medicaid, because you don’t need to be on Medicaid. It won’t make a difference to you if they cut food stamps, because you don’t need food stamps. So politics is permanently immaterial. That is the perfect breeding ground for the kind of politics where you say: ‘If they serve bánh mì in the college cafeteria that’s cultural appropriation.’ ”

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[See also: Democrats are losing the country music culture war]

Identity politics is bad politics because, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “winning majorities is not the same as adding up minorities”. DeBoer is sympathetic towards those who protested in 2020, but he thinks a politics centred on identity prevents social justice movements and political parties from winning widespread support. As he wrote in a recent piece: “The heart of left-wing practice is communitarianism, putting the group before the individual, and the fundamental complaint of identity politics is ‘hey, what about me?!?’ ”

DeBoer thinks this partly explains the collapse in support for the Democrats among the white working class during the 2010s. This, he thinks, needs rectifying. “Sure, plenty of Trump voters are racist,” he said. “It happens that the greatest improvements to the American welfare state with the New Deal happened to include a coalition with a lot of racists,” he added, referring to the so-called Dixiecrats’ support for the New Deal.

“You don’t have to like everyone in your coalition to enjoy the power that they bring through their vote, right? In other words, if we pull back some white racists, of course, we want them to not be racist. But if they’re voting for a Democratic Party that then engages in anti-racist behaviour, then the net benefit is clearly positive, right? But do we need to appeal to racism? Of course not. Again, politics is about self-interest. You make these voters feel like: ‘This party is going to make me healthier and happier and richer, so I’m going to vote for them.’ And then they can keep their racist opinions to themselves.”

He’s keen to stress that key campaigners for racial justice practised class politics. “If you look at the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale, one of the first-generation Panther leaders, said: ours is a class struggle, not a race struggle. If a Bernie Sanders-style media commentator said in 2023, ‘The black people struggle is a class struggle, not a race struggle’, they’d be accused of being racist.”

DeBoer trades in contentious ideas. He’s an outsider who says what he thinks and does not conform to fashionable dogma. Both his parents – his father a professor in theatre and his mother a nurse and local environmental activist – were committed communists. His grandfather was also a communist, who was persecuted by the Broyles Commission, a precursor to McCarthyism. DeBoer has carried on this maverick tradition. His iconoclastic approach – his first book, The Cult of Smart, argued that intelligence was inherited (notably between individuals, not groups such as races) – wins him plaudits from the right. The conservative National Review has praised deBoer as “amusingly contrarian and highly engaging”. This also means his prose can sometimes be defensive.

He is an obsessive writer. His loquacity reflects his blogging mind: he estimates that he produces around 18,000 words a week, often for his 41,000 Substack subscribers. That’s 14 times the length of the piece you’re reading now. “I don’t get distracted by things,” he explains. “And I think that’s probably genetic. So I’m just lucky… Writing for me is a profoundly solitary thing.” His therapist has advised him to write less.

Despite his own solitary approach to work, deBoer views community and the interaction between strangers as essential to left-wing politics. “Forging relationships and having meaningful exchanges [perform] a profoundly important democratic function in terms of thinking of yourself as part of a larger polity and caring about other people,” he said. “But it also has a really essential progressive function.”

His paean to community is reminiscent of post-liberalism, which rejects individualism and free-market economics to protect the community. But deBoer does not see himself as a post-liberal. “I don’t like any label other than Marxist or socialist for myself,” he said.

He does see liberalism as central to his politics. “What I’m doing in most of my writing is arguing for liberalism as traditionally conceived in social issues. When I get mad about campus activists trying to shut down a newspaper because it published a conservative, that’s me defending liberalism. And I think this is a very important point that people don’t understand: Marxism is not an anti-liberal philosophy.”

“What I want,” he concludes, “is leftist economics that protects people who have become the victims of globalisation, along with a sort of cultural and social approach that emphasises shared humanity rather than difference.”

[See also: America is nothing more than a self-help society]

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect