November 27, 2020

Emperor penguins, the largest and most well-known penguin species, have peculiar chick-rearing habits. When a baby penguin hatches, one parent must guard their offspring while the other journeys down to sea to feed and catch food. If the hunter is delayed for any reason, the stay-at-home parent is left with a painful choice: stay with your chicks and starve or abandon them in search of food.

Orphaned chicks never survive. They go from one penguin to the next, begging for food and shelter, but are cast away. Eventually, they weaken and die from starvation or exposure to the harsh cold.

The radical Left in the West, especially after the decisive defeat of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, has a great deal in common with these unfortunate penguins. The collapse of Left populism is today final and irrevocable; the rejection and abandonment not only coming from the working-class that these Leftists claimed to speak for, but also from the Left-of-centre parties that the they tried to sell their services to as electorally useful “tribunes of the people.”

But not every penguin is born equal. The true nature of the modern Left should be understood as a sort of composite being, made up of heterogeneous parts. In theory, the Left wants to be, or at least thinks it wants to be, a political alliance between various stripes of “professionals” — college-educated, urban, progressive — and a broader base of  “ordinary people.”

But in truth, the radical Left is a cross-section of the lower half of the managerial class — graduates who work in jobs that, according to Michael Lind, “pay modestly but provide both status and a degree of personal autonomy that the frequently better-paid managerial functionaries in more hierarchical occupations (e.g. within large, traditional corporations) do not possess.” Over time, the interests of this group have increasingly aligned with those of the urban, cosmopolitan elites in the Democratic Party.

For those looking to reach the upper parts of that cross-section, radical (an adjective usually followed by “student”) politics is a smart career move for ambitious young professionals. The now infamous video from the 2019 Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention, in which attendees objected to clapping and language they found offensive, is often mocked as representing the uselessness and confusion of the American Left, but this characterisation is only half the story.

In reality, even something as silly as a rule against clapping — because it threatens the disabled working-class comrades who are poised to flock to the red banner — is a useful career training tool. Animals play in order to learn how to hunt, and mobilising the “lack of privilege” along with concerns about “safety” among “marginalised groups” is actually how one wields power in a rapidly increasing number of our society’s institutions today.

On top of that, the dour European social democrats of yesterday who warmly ushered in the post-Soviet end of history were at one point — nearly to a man — radical revolutionaries in their youth, such as the young Trotskyist and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, erstwhile Left-wing militant turned mid-2000s German Green Party vice-chancellor Joschka Fischer, and long-serving former Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

And while Marxism-Leninism-Maoism is a boutique object to be put back on the shelf when you grow up and join the machine you once raged against, the corporate HR-speak and identity politics of the Left is a useful skill that can be utilised in full once you make the transition from Communism to K Street.

These penguins have already spent their time learning how to hunt for lucrative jobs and move up in the world. Some of them have one foot in the proletarian vanguard and another in the liberal NGO world. Others have one foot in a class-first Marxist seminar, and the other in an anti-racist lecture hall, with former US President Barack Obama, who studied the works of Frantz Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks to flirt with girls he found attractive, being the latest example.

But not everyone is this lucky. For other parts of the radical Left, the problem is not so much career advancement as it is forestalling a precipitous slide down into the working-class. These are the people who went to college and “did everything right,” but for whom no doors have opened, no jobs seem available, and no succour is offered anywhere.

But for all their rejection of  “bourgeois” politics, the political programmes of these people tend to begin and end with reforms aimed at rescuing struggling college graduates from the horror of having to join the working-class at the workplace. The hope, according to some debt-forgiveness activists, is to create a near-universal class united by “debt” rather than by job or income. What this means in reality, however, is partial student debt forgiveness; payday loan debt forgiveness, the usurious micro-lending targeting the least among us, is not even on the radar.

This makes sense when you consider the backgrounds of some of the people trying to advance such policies: Meagan Day, one of the co-authors of the recently-published socialist manifesto Bigger Than Bernie, can attribute her family’s considerable wealth to success in the rent-to-own furniture industry, another line of business predicated on extracting high rates of interest from poor people. 

Alas, for the majority of orphaned penguins, rejection and abandonment proves devastating. Unable to advocate for anyone or anything, they are compelled to cloak their interests in universalising language about “the people” or “the working-class.” But when those same idealised groups reject them, the radical suddenly finds he or she has no remaining leg on which to stand.

The Labour defeat of 2019, and the subsequent purge of Momentum and Corbyn loyalists from positions of power within the party, must be understood in this context. The purge of Momentum is not the same as a purge of the working-class, because the political wave that swept Jeremy Corbyn into the Labour leadership came from the university towns of Britain. It was a middle-class movement to the bone, and while the new leadership of Keir Starmer’s party may reject Corbyn, they certainly have no plans to turn the party away from its new middle-class and urban base. So with the “true radicals” side-lined, why even bother to humour them?

The same post-election purge can be seen inside the Democratic Party today; although Joe Biden won, the widely predicted landslide did not come to fruition, and talk of socialism and “defunding the police” was seen as a political albatross by grey eminences such as South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn. Days after the election, the House majority whip argued that the “sloganeering” of the Black Lives Matter movement “destroyed headway” made by the party. Which begs the question: if these young revolutionaries can’t actually deliver votes, and if many of the workers actually detest them, then what use do they have for the party leadership?

The project of Left populism, properly understood, was not a revolution of the working-class that ended in ignominious defeat. Rather, it was akin to a conflict within the nobility; a fight between “true” radicals on the one hand, and those savvier operators who used the Left to regain access to the mainstream of the party on the other. The latter, though they might have flirted with “radical socialism” from time to time, could always move on to greener pastures. Thus, the collapse of Left populism and its replacement by something else was never a threat to their fortunes.

Whither these unfortunate penguin chicks that once flocked to “Birdie” Sanders? Their likely destination is probably a continued unwavering course towards utopia — a “uo topos,” no place, nowhere. As they wander in the cold and the dark, like those poor penguins, their political ambitions will shrivel away.

Some of them will reconcile to serving as junior partners in the “woke,” liberal coalition that occupies a liminal space between progressive capitalism and the traditional Left-of-centre parties, where they will be paid little and listened to even less. Others will be forced, by dint of inexorable downward social mobility, to study the working-class up close, day in and day out. In politics, just as in nature, the strong do what they will, while the weak do what they must.