If you elected to build a library dedicated to the subject of Human Folly, the place would end up as wide as the Grand Canyon and as tall as the Burj Khalifa. Plenty of space then, for a modest pamphlet on the activities of the Democratic Socialists of America, who held their National Convention last week in Atlanta.
Socialism – or something that calls itself socialism – has returned to America. There are some good reasons for this turn to the left, among them a justifiable anger with a feckless ruling class that is shared by the Trumpian right. Thomas Frank continues to argue persuasively (and ineffectually) that a populist turn to the left – not open borders advocacy and more managerialism – are the best way to beat President Trump.
The Democratic Socialists of America fill the space where this left-populism ought to be. Though they are influential and argue for some economic policies that the electorate find attractive, much of their convention last week appeared to dwell in that magical section of the Venn diagram where bullshit and horseshit freely meet and mingle.
- Quiet rooms available for all attendees – but no aggressive scents in those rooms!
- Use the proper doors and exits – no short cuts from the hall!
- Wear proper credentials at all times – right-wing infiltrators might be trying to get in!
- Try to be chill – take a deep breath!
- Don’t talk to anybody – especially if they don’t have credentials!
- Don’t talk to anybody from the press!
- Don’t talk to the cops for any reason at all!
- Please don’t clap – some comrades have sensitive hearing!
More clips and bits filtered out onto Twitter over the weekend. We watched busybody delegates scream at each other about invisible illness and gendered language. Clapping was outlawed; replaced by silent jazz hands. By Monday cringe compilations were filling up YouTube and the convention was so much fish in a barrel for Tucker Carlson. It was as if a parody of exaggerated leftism had been constructed purely for conservatives to giggle at.
The DSA’s organizers feared ‘right-wing infiltrators’ but the most ruthless propagandist in the world couldn’t own the DSA as hard as a few three-minute videos from its own convention.
Why did they livestream this stuff? Strutting crank socialism is never a pleasant sight: the sentimentality of Marley and Me with the blood-curdling vitriol of Vasiliy Ulrikh; the unrestrained narcissism of a Real Housewife of New Jersey joining hands with the overwhelming moral certitude of one of those Jesuit missionaries decapitated because he just would not leave the damn natives alone.
Manners are not frivolous. They tell you much of what you need to know about a person, and about a group. The DSA are a portent, not a political party. Not much has been made of the convention voting to endorse open borders, which must be a first for a national labor party. While we laugh at their jazz hands, the DSA threatens to pull the Democrats towards a policy that will prevent them from winning a national election for the foreseeable future.
For much of the 20th century, socialism offered its followers a powerful, moving vision of a radiant future. It was Leon Trotsky, in Literature and Revolution (1924) who offered up the most memorable rendition of this utopia:
‘Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.’
Trotksy’s words are hard to type now, and even harder to take seriously. They are grand, certain and immodest. The failure to perfect man in the 20th century hollows them out and mocks them. Average human types did not reach the heights of Aristotle; they slumped to the lows of Beria, Blokhin, Dzherzhinsky and all the rest.
But what vision do the DSA offer? The tragedy of the contemporary Left is that they toss the word ‘socialism’ around like a fish between seabirds, while offering no real picture of the future. Today’s socialists bring to life Richard Sennet’s old idea that:
‘Masses of people are concerned with their own life-histories and particular emotions as never before; this concern has proved to be a trap rather than a liberation.’
Slowing down a convention every time an attendee starts mouthing off about their fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva might demonstrate a will to politeness, but it doesn’t convince as politics. Process is not idealism. When speech becomes violence and sounds become harm a return to the womb seems more likely than the seizure of the means of production.