Overcoming Left Melancholia, Pt. 1: Diagnosis

Last month, I returned home to Kansas City for a brief stint to help organize a national day of action for Labor Day on behalf of the Fight for $15–the international movement of fast food workers, child care professionals, home health care aids, adjunct professors and other low-wage workers to win better pay, benefits, and the right to unionize. Despite its flaws and contradictions, it has been one of the most successful progressive grassroots campaigns in recent history. It has won raises for millions of workers in places like New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, Seattle, and has put pressure on corporations—most recently retail giant Target—to value the labor of their employees and treat them with dignity. It breathed new life into the labor movement in the United States in a time when it was desperately needed; and has engendered forms of class solidarity that are inclusive of people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. Prior to moving to Colorado, I was an organizer in various capacities for the Fight for $15, and still intermittently return to help when needed.

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One of many demonstrations by low-wage workers during the Fight for $15 Labor Day Strike. Photo courtesy of fightfor15.org

Now having lived in a remote mountain community for over a year, I cannot begin to articulate the unique type of culture shock I experience when returning to the city. I worked sixteen hour days, driving around a sprawling urban metropolis, visiting old haunts, seeing old faces, and doing my old job; which couldn’t be more different than working at an off grid wildlife sanctuary. That’s a topic for another time though.

On Labor Day, low-wage workers from many industries across the country went on a one day strike to demand better pay and a voice on the job from the multi-billion dollar companies they work for. The significance of this act cannot be overstated. These workers, most of whom live paycheck to paycheck and straddle the poverty line, don’t even have any form of job security—they are still fighting to attain the recognition of an inchoate union. Faced with the overwhelming power and influence of companies like McDonald’s and Walmart (two of the biggest private sector employers in the US), these workers still exercise their federal right to go on strike and struggle for a better life for themselves and their families. The resolve and strength of these people never ceases to inspire me.

I was sleep-deprived, malnourished and delirious by the time it was over.  But the strike was a success overall, both in Kansas City and nationally. A couple days after, I was spending the evening with a few of my comrades. We were catching up on the happenings in each others lives, reflecting and reminiscing. Of course, as activists and organizers, the conversation inevitably turns to politics and the state of things. I was involved in an exchange with two fellow organizers about the Trump administration and viable strategies of resistance moving forward. Admittedly we had been having a few drinks and the conversation got pretty animated. One took a more nihilistic viewpoint, while the other expressed some optimism in terms of local organizing; I was somewhere in between. I won’t go into the debate in great detail, but I was struck by the lamentations of my more pessimistic comrade. Since then, I’ve been thinking almost everyday about the exchange. I paraphrase only slightly.

“We are so fucked. Completely and utterly fucked. Every progressive gain and victory our side has had in the past thirty years Trump is rolling back and destroying. The Civil Rights movement, the labor movement, the anti-war movement; everything they did is being taken away. And we are doing some of the most effective organizing for the Left in this country—but it’s still not enough. In our lifetimes, there isn’t even any hope of tipping the scales. We can only hope to put the next generation in a position to fight back.”

He was right. As much at it pains me to admit it, I think he’s right. Donald Trump is a psychopathic demagogue full of hollow populism, behind that he’s a completely inept politician. Nonetheless, the corrupt administration he’s building around himself is filled with far-right politicians who have plenty of experience, and they’re doing real damage. The continual attacks on the Affordable Care Act, the Muslim travel ban, the gutting of the welfare state, the deportations, ICE raids and the repealing of DACA, and of course the emboldened white nationalists, white supremacists, Nazis, and racists of every stripe that now march through the streets of American cities. The dramatic shift to the far Right in the political climate is the result of many factors, but one of them is most assuredly the failures of the contemporary Left. “The Left”: an all encompassing umbrella term for those more with more radical politics than centrists and liberals. These are those who consistently advocate for the reform of the existing political status quo or a total revolution of sociopolitical power structures. In the US this currently means the supporters of Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialists, the Green Party, and outside of electoral politics, Marxists, communists, and anarchists of all different sects. Only in the past couple of years have I really begun to conceptualize myself as a member of the Left. My radicalization has been rapid and intense; it was not so long ago that I basically saw myself as an apolitical person. Of course I had socially and economically liberal inclinations, but hardly ever acted on those feelings. At the time, I never considered going to protests or rallies, although growing up in the suburbs I hardly knew when they occurred anyway. It also seemed to be too much effort to argue with family and friends about issues that made them feel uneasy and pushed them outside our tiny comfort zones. Politics was so messy, so divisive, and repetitive that it wasn’t worth my time.

I was shielded by so much privilege. I couldn’t comprehend that the reason I was able to dismiss politics altogether and carry on in blissful ignorance was because issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty never directly affected me. As a white, middle-class, straight (or cishet) male, I never truly had to worry about whether these things would negatively impact my prospects in life.

With all that in mind, there was, however, something in me that always seemed to question the status quo and societal norms. Even as a small child and into my adolescence, there are choices I made and events that happened which foreshadowed my future self. For instance, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X in the 6th grade. When asked to write a historical essay on a topic of my choosing in my 8th grade communications class, I wrote about the destruction of Black Wallstreet by racist police forces and the KKK. Every lesson I learned in school about the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, or women’s suffrage left me wanting (there was literally no focus on the history of the labor movement or LGBTQ rights in my primary education). It always seemed like those textbooks and lectures offered such a cursory analysis that obfuscated the true nature of these movements.

It was these deeply held convictions that eventually drove me to action as an undergrad sociology student. I became heavily involved in Kansas City’s Black Lives Matter movement, which in turn led to my involvement in other organizations for anti-militarism and economic equality. I realized, very quickly, that politics are ubiquitous. Those who are apathetic towards politics, like my former self, do so because they have the privilege to do so. Those who wish to maintain the political status quo do so because they implicitly or explicitly benefit from the established system. The most obvious example of this is of course the current administration. Who supports Donald Trump? Overwhelmingly it is white people who, regardless of whatever flowery terms they dress up their rhetoric in, believe that the United States is a white nation and is beset on all sides by hordes of barbaric immigrants, terroristic Muslims and other ethnic groups who want to dispossess whitey of his birthright! Despite its founding ideals of truth, justice and equality, America is an incredibly racist, patriarchal, oligarchical, plutocratic and imperialistic nation which was built upon the genocide of one race and the enslavement of another. If you don’t agree with that statement, then you probably didn’t care to make it this far into the essay anyways.

In summation, the personal is political, and the political is personal. Access to healthcare determines whether people live or die. Immigration reform determines who gets to live where. Our policy on climate change determines whether people in Houston and Puerto Rico are dying or not, whether non-human animals are dying or not. Those who have political power determine who the United States bombs or doesn’t, where they send the drone strikes that kill innocent men, women and children. Those in power choose not to act when another unarmed person is harassed, exploited or killed by the police. Those in power orchestrate the nefarious political coups in nations struggling for autonomy and the right to self-determination like Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and South Africa, just to name a few.

All of this brings me to my current dilemma as a young leftist. That being, how the FUCK am I supposed to find the strength to get up in the morning when I exist in this god-forsaken, white supremacist, union-busting, voter-suppressing, glacier-melting, ocean level rising, endangered species eradicating, every other day natural disaster having, backwards ass bourgeoise, human rights abusing, genocidal, neoliberal police state soon to be post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland anthropocene world?

Seriously. Please. Someone fucking tell me how I’m supposed to carry on anymore knowing that this world is such a terrible place.

Thank you for indulging my nihilism for a paragraph. You’re too kind. But in all seriousness, my political development as a leftist has been largely congruent with the development of serious depression. This is for several reasons. As stated above, in unfortunately not so exaggerated terms, THIS WORLD IS BLEAK AS FUCK. There’s no two ways about it. Also, in my experience, it can be incredibly isolating to be a leftist. Most of my family, which is generally composed of apolitical or conservative individuals, would think I’m simply a misguided youth going through a crazy phase in my life. Similarly, although most of the friends I grew up with are liberals in some form or fashion, they are not political activists, let alone revolutionaries. The work I’ve been doing for the past few years is completely alien to them, and there is little common ground to relate to one another with. I love my friends dearly, and I am overjoyed to see them succeeding in life, building careers, families, and making the world better in their own ways. I simply lament, in my many moments of weakness, that my path seems to have diverged so dramatically from theirs.

I’m not fishing for anyone’s pity, but I will admit that I write this as much for myself as for anyone else. I was inspired to address this issue after rereading a couple of essays that have been extremely influential in my life recently. One of which I will discuss here. In a now classic piece, Wendy Brown analyzes the idea of “Left Melancholia,” a term coined by German philosopher and social theorist Walter Benjamin. He applies the Freudian concept of Melancholia to the form of depression that stems from the political orientation of the leftist.

“‘Left melancholia’ is Benjamin’s unambivalent epithet for the revolutionary hack who is, finally, not serious about political change, who is more attached to a particular political analysis or ideal — even to the failure of that ideal — than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present…[It] represents not only a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present, that is, a failure to understand history in terms other than ’empty time’ or ‘progress.’ It signifies as well a certain narcissism with regard to one’s past political attachments and identity that exceeds any contemporary investment in political mobilization, alliance, or transformation.”

When I first read that definition, I simultaneously felt a great sense of relief and shame engulf me. I was relieved to know that someone had actually dissected this idea—that I clearly was suffering from a condition not uncommon to people who are involved in serious progressive movements and socialist politics. Yet, I felt shame, because I also had succumbed to the political paralysis caused by the melancholic condition, which at times made me ineffective as an agent of radical change. I had become so attached, so doctrinaire even, to a set of ideals and values that I couldn’t acknowledge or celebrate any of the victories I helped win, or see new opportunities that were right in front of me to catalyze change. I became more attached to my sentiments and ideology than to doing the work that desperately needed to be done.

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Walter Benjamin at work. Photo courtesy of notevenpast.org

Left Melancholia is often a chronic state. I have gone through periods where I have spent weeks doing nothing but debasing myself for my political failures, leaving me lethargic, neurotic and antisocial. Yet this, as Brown states, is the

“irony of melancholia, which is that attachment to the object of one’s sorrowful loss supersedes any desire to recover from this loss, to live free of it in the present, to be unburdened by it. This is what renders melancholia a persistent condition, a state, indeed, a structure of desire, rather than a transient response to death or loss.”

This rings true as well. Unlike when we experience pain after the death of a loved one or friend, we do not become shocked, grieve, process, and then recover from the loss of that person (not to diminish the impact caused by the death of actual people). The melancholic leftist is so completely absorbed by their sorrow that it becomes static and permanent. We are not mourning the loss of a person or relationship, but rather, the loss of our ideals. The absolute worst part, however, is that the emotional anguish the leftist feels after being dealt defeat or experiencing failure is directed not towards the reactionary and oppressive forces that we fight against; rather, that sadness, despair, anger and hatred is directed inwards, towards the self. Brown again:

“The reproach of the loved object pertains to its failure to live up to the idealization by the beloved, and the displacement of this reproach results in the melancholic’s misery. In other words, the love or idealization of the object is preserved, even as the loss of love occasioned by the shattered idealization is converted to the terrible suffering of the melancholic, a suffering resulting from a withdrawal of love but a withdrawal now turned against the self rather than the other.”

More than anything, it is this description of self-induced suffering and loathing caused by the displacement of resentment that I identify with. This is something I struggled with even before becoming a political person. No matter what it was—sports, academics, the arts, personal relationships—anytime anything went wrong or didn’t live up to my expectations, I unconditionally blamed myself first. This form of emotional self-flagellation only became more intense and destructive as I was politicized. This was due to the simple fact that when I failed in strictly personal endeavors it was usually only I who directly suffered; when I failed as an activist or organizer, it impinged on the lives of countless others. This feeling has been at times totally crippling to me, and continues to impair my mental health.

It was only after reading this essay a few times that the author’s intent fully dawned on me. I am not wrong to analyze my failures or the failures of the Left at large. Nor am I wrong to commiserate and feel sadness; it is, however, wrong of me to surrender entirely to those feelings. When I was finally able to gain enough composure to make an attempt at analyzing these emotions objectively, the reality of the situation—which Brown and Benjamin expose—is that those afflicted by Left Melancholia are no better than political fundamentalists. We become committed to our ideals to the point of dogmatism, and are then grief-stricken when the material world falls short of our utopian visions despite the righteousness of our cause and the zeal of our efforts. And instead of taking our defeats and shortcomings, analyzing them, recalibrating and pushing forward, we become stagnant, despondent, and even counterrevolutionary. Put differently by Brown;

“We come to love our Left passions and reasons, our Left analyses and convictions, more than we love the existing world that we presumably seek to alter with these terms or the future that would be aligned with them. Left melancholy, in short, is Benjamin’s name for a mournful, conservative, backward-looking attachment to a feeling, analysis, or relationship that has been rendered thing-like and frozen in the heart of the putative Leftist.”

That is the crux of the matter. There is no question that the teachings of Marx and Engels should be guiding principles in the international struggle for liberation. But by becoming overly enthralled to theory, one cannot reconcile when actual events occur contrary to theoretical maxims; it can make us politically inert and intellectually sluggish, which can in turn result in the melancholic condition. When we deify the thinkers, activists and revolutionaries of the past to the point of idolatry, whether they be the classical Marxists, anarchists, progressives, suffragettes, civil rights icons or what have you, we forget that they were actual human beings—subject to so many of the same flaws, setbacks, and pitfalls as we are. Of course they were well versed in theory, but in order to attain victory, they couldn’t afford to be perpetually dogmatic about their means. We should learn from both the achievements and the failures of our heroes. We should enshrine their ideas and contributions to the Left, but not canonize them. It was Stalin who ordered Vladimir Lenin’s body embalmed and put into a mausoleum. Lenin loathed his cult of personality.

Some of my peers might decry these ideas as postmodern, overly subjective, poststructuralist navel-gazing (i.e. argue that ideas about the perception of self and psychoanalysis distract from the primary issue of class struggle). These assertions are fair. Although identity politics and postmodernism do lead to a degree of sectarianism within the Left that borders on the absurd, there can be no denying that movements based in identity have contributed to tangible, lasting social change (The Gay Rights Movement, ACT Up, Civil Rights Movement, SNCC, etc.) and still hold promise for radical change today (Black Lives Matter). Similarly, I understand that psychoanalysis can seem very antiquated, and Freud was wrong about almost everything in terms of psychology and human development. Yet, I am of the mind that we should not dismiss Freud entirely. Not for his contributions to the field of psychology, but for his contributions to social theory. Whatever your ideological orientation, I firmly believe that part of being an effective agent for change involves keeping oneself healthy in every sense of the word.

In the years I have been engaged in political organizing, my friends, confidants, and significant others have repeatedly asked me, in one way or another, “if this work is so hard, and it makes you so depressed, why do you insist on continuing it?” For awhile I wondered that myself, but the answer is actually quite simple. I have no other choice. The work is mentally, emotionally, and physically excruciating. The fact remains that through engaging in the work, that is what allows me to go to sleep at night, and to look myself in the mirror everyday. Even with all the failures, all the despair and feelings of futility, I can truthfully say to myself that I am doing all I can to fight back and stem the tide. Being a Leftist has saved me from jumping into the abyss of insanity; it has also led me up another treacherous precipice. You know that analogy about “self-care” referencing the oxygen masks on the airplane? It’s when the plane’s going to crash and the emergency oxygen masks dispense, and it’s something like,“You’ve got to secure your own oxygen mask before you start helping anyone else! You won’t be able to save anyone if you don’t save yourself first!” My therapist referenced it to me the other day, for the umpteenth time. I’ve grown tired of hearing that trite expression. Still, I can’t say it’s not true.

Recovering from melancholia, like recovering from any affliction or disease, first means acknowledging I have a problem and diagnosing the full breadth and scope of it. The next step is understanding that wallowing in despair and defeats of the past doesn’t bring me any closer to realizing the world we’ve been fighting so hard for. I must comprehend the counterrevoltionary nature of the condition. Similarly, it entails being unashamed of my politics and morals. I believe that no one who works should have to live in poverty; that access to education and healthcare are rights and not privileges; that Nature is inherently valuable and we need to act to undo climate change and prevent species loss immediately; that the extrajudicial killings of black people are unjustifiable and are based in the racism and prejudice of an inherently corrupt policing system. Philosophically speaking, I believe in the alleviation of unnecessary suffering of both humans and non-human animals, and the self-determination of every sentient being to realize their fullest potential. These ideals are unattainable under the current capitalist system. It is an economic model based on infinite growth in a finite world, which inevitably results in the exploitation of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, and the perpetuation of this system depends on this continual exploitation of certain groups of people and animals. This leaves us to consider alternatives—the most viable being socialism of some form. Despite the considerable influence of historical revisionism and the hegemony of capitalist narratives (America has drifted so far to the Right that people like the Clintons and Obama seem like they are on the Left), I firmly believe that these ideas are grounded in the good, the virtuous and the true.

I say this because Centrism and Liberalism are simply not working. As I said, there are literally Nazis marching on the streets of American Cities. There has been a massive increase in the number of hate groups since Trump was elected. The number of violent hate crimes against Muslims, immigrants, and other minorities has skyrocketed as well. I will no

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Ancient hieroglyphs depicting the logic of Reformism. Date Unknown.

longer settle for the promises of incremental, palliative change when the material conditions of this world are demanding a radical restructuring of society at large now. We are not going to defeat white supremacists and Nazis by debating with people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, and Ann Coulter, and allowing them a platform to further spew their bigotry and racism. While I abhor violence, it must be understood that the tactics of non-violence are just that—tactics—which can be effective in some cases and ineffective in others. Despite the popular idea of equating the Right wing violence of the KKK, Threepers, Oathkeepers, and Proud Boys with the Left wing violence of Antifa or Communist organizations, they are two diametrically opposed forces. Nazis and White Nationalists are literally calling for the genocide of people of color, immigrants, and gay people in order to create a white ethnostate. Antifascists are trying to stop them. No matter what the media or liberal ideologues try to do to conflate these two, they are not the same. For fuck’s sake, Cornel West himself admitted that it was only Antifa who saved him and clergy members from being severely injured during a stand-off with Right wing hate groups a couple months ago.

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A brief history of American politics in the past 40 years.

Recovering from Left Melancholia means understanding that this is a long game. Freedom is a constant struggle—a struggle many of us will devote the best years of our lives to, and that some of us will die for. My comrades are correct; we will almost certainly not see the type of world we want during our lifetimes. Knowing this doesn’t mean that our cause isn’t worthwhile, or that we should stop fighting for it. Finally, in order to sustain ourselves during this long, hard struggle, we have to take heart in our victories, however small they may be. We have to revel in our camaraderie, in the forms of solidarity created within our movements. We have to celebrate the triumph of the people over the elite, of the workers over the capitalists, and of the oppressed over the oppressors. With the odds stacked so heavily against us, we must find a way to preserve what little hope we have; we have to cherish it, nurture it, and guard it from the doubt and despair that threatens to engulf us all. Because without hope, and the conception of a better world rooted in our ideals, we are surely doomed for failure.

On this month, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the beginning of one of the freest times in human history, I implore us to have hope. For if we do not have hope,

“what emerges is a Left that operates without either a substantive critique of the status quo or a substantive alternative to it. But perhaps even more troubling, it is a Left that has become more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness, a Left that is most at home dwelling not in hopefulness but in its own marginality and failure, a Left that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past, whose spirit is deathly, whose structure of desire is backward-looking and punishing.” 

Hope. That is the next topic of discussion; how to find hope as a Leftist during the era of Trumpism and the resurgence of fascism. And, how to nourish our visions of a better world, and keep them alive until they become reality. Bringing about “the revolution” necessitates that there are also internal revolutions happening in the hearts and minds of the people–that there is a correspondence between the ideal and the material. A topic for another time.

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V.I. Lenin addressing a crowd during the October 1917 revolution. Photo courtesy of openthemagazine.com

In love and solidarity,

-Austin-

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2 thoughts on “Overcoming Left Melancholia, Pt. 1: Diagnosis

  1. As an alternative to socialism, have you studied associative economics? Steiner’s ideas are rooted in love and solidarity, and does not rely on centralized planning and labor specialization to the degree that socialism and capitalism do. If you want to dabble,

    http://leadtogether.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Associative-Economics-Gary-Lamb-AWSNA.pdf

    I think we need to consider home economy as a means of achieving liberation from the system which derives profit from our bodies by exploiting our biological desires. I think Nature gives us the power to produce our own freedom from the military-economic system that each day grows threateningly closer to destroying the finite void of Natural capital it exploits.

    You are far more experience than me, and have made more sacrifice. These are only thoughts. So I must ask yours.

    Do you see hope in a solution outside the political spectrum? If we stop paying it so much mind, can we stop the socio-political machine that feeds on us?

    Like

  2. Does Nature provides us with means of dissociating from the military-industrial complex that feeds on us?

    Have you considered Associative Economics? Steiner’s ideas are rooted in love, solidarity, and escape from the exploitation of our finite void of natural capital on this Earth.
    I think home economy has to be considered as a means of removing ourselves from the men who profit from the exploitation of our biological desires.
    I also think spirituality has to be considered as a means of embracing the unknown and honoring what is sacred in one another.

    By paying less mind to the socio-political system that feeds on our unrest, can we begin to degrade the institutions it uses to benefit few in time at the expense of all in perpetuity?

    Like

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