Why Socialists Shouldn't be Afraid of Organizing Conservative Workers
On r/antiwork, Pepsi-vs-Coke, and the pitfalls of 'vulgar intersectionalism'
Over the winter, a labour subreddit called r/antiwork exploded in size, growing from a few tens of thousands of subscribers to almost two million. I watched this happen with a lot of enthusiasm. An internet forum isn’t the same as real on-the-ground organizing, but any scenario in which a couple of million people are being regularly exposed to strongly pro-worker content is a very good thing. There was something else I really liked about it: a really large proportion of the users seemed to be new to these kinds of ideas. They weren’t leftists (yet); they didn’t talk like the online woke left or like culty Trotskyist types. They seemed to be ordinary working people who were being radicalized in real time by the absolutely abysmal labour conditions they were encountering out there in the world. They were discovering a sense of solidarity with one another as a class, and as they stayed and explored the forum, their sense of outrage at their own exploitation and degradation deepened. They posted screenshots of their bosses texting them telling them to stay at work overnight during a snowstorm so that they wouldn’t be late to their shifts the next day. They showed each other e-mails from recruiters who had offered them $18 an hour, only to bait and switch the rate down to $14 at the last minute. They commiserated about the fundamental misery of having to spend almost all of your time either working, preparing for work, commuting to work or recovering from work, with no time to actualize yourself as a person, year after year. They ranted about the barbaric American practice of tying healthcare to employment. All of this was happening organically, it seemed, with very little derailment from identitarian scolds or sectarian nerds. It was great.
In late January the head moderator of the subreddit gave an interview with Fox News. She was badly prepared, not very articulate, and looked like a weird catgirl, sitting in a messy bedroom and not looking at the camera. She flubbed easy questions, missed opportunities to use strong socialist talking points, and overall fucked up the interview pretty badly, to the point where the gleaming orange Fox News android was more or less openly laughing at her by the end. To make matters worse, the subreddit had already conducted polls in which a clear majority had voted not to do interviews with media, in order to avoid situations like these, and she had ignored this decision and elected to do the interview anyway of her own accord.
The fallout was instantaneous, enormous and dramatic. People were enraged, heads rolled. The subreddit went private for a few days as the mods tried to figure out what to do. The catgirl was removed as head moderator, a new head moderator was put in place and then he was promptly removed as well when it emerged he was also a huge weirdo. Everything was very chaotic. When the dust settled a few days later, many users had migrated to a couple of other subreddits. Sniping between users of these rival heirs, and users of a couple of other adjacent subs, was in full force. And that’s when I started noticing it: a marked increase in the type of sanctimonious scolding that had previously been rare. In particular, I started seeing a specific type of take: post after post, all oddly similar in their wording, declaring that the user would never organize with conservative workers.
Conservatives, the posts declared, are fundamentally motivated by bigotry. That’s what makes them conservative. To accept such a person as part of the workers’ movement is to throw oppressed people under the bus. How can we expect people to organize with conservatives, who, as a condition of being conservative, don’t accept that their identities are valid? Furthermore, conservative workers hate workers’ rights, and human rights in general. Their entire ideology is based on stabbing other workers in the back. It is impossible to have solidarity with people who don’t even believe that other people should have rights. If we allow conservatives to join the labour movement, their bigotry will corrupt the entire thing. Anyways, if individual conservatives really cared about labour rights, then they wouldn’t be conservatives; and if they still think they are conservatives, they need to educate themselves. Either way they should not be permitted to defile the movement with their hatefulness. Conservative workers are not welcome in the labour movement!
I editorialized that paragraph very little; that’s a faithful distillation, word for word in a bunch of places, of half a dozen or so posts that cropped up in couple days after the interview. Now, I’m not one to claim that everything is a psyop. I wouldn’t put anything past the security services, but I’m more inclined to believe that somewhere there’s an FBI office where a bunch of guys, day after day, try desperately and fail to come up with ways to disrupt and discredit the Left that leftists haven’t already ourselves turned into an art form. The timing is fucking suspicious though. Rapidly growing pro-worker space, mostly uninfected with snobbish wreckerism and thus still retaining some appeal to people outside the regular lefty echo chamber, gets nuked from orbit by right-wing media. Immediately afterward the whole ecosystem gets flooded with calls to abandon class-based organizing and dismantle anything that might be palatable to people who think of themselves as being on the right. Honestly I have no idea if the feds are involved, but in most ways it doesn’t matter; these posts are massively upvoted, with hundreds of comments in agreement, and anyway they can’t all be written by spooks. This kind of sentiment is really common, and deserves a response.
First of all, it’s wildly black and white.
According to this view, all conservatives are motivated almost exclusively by hatred, and in this, conservatives and fascists are nearly identical. They are all arrayed against us, we who are motivated by the desire to do good. The world is fairly neatly divided into good people on the one hand, and conservatives on the other. Seeking to understand the political landscape in a more textured and contextualized way is essentially apologism for conservatism which is essentially apologism for fascism which is essentially fascism.
Ironically, when I was doing research on far-right extremism for my Master’s thesis, I learned that rigid, black and white, us versus them, good versus evil thinking is considered one of the hallmark characteristics of fascist thinking. It helps you dehumanize your enemies, because humans are morally complex but monsters are not. It prevents you from trying to understand them, because there is no point in understanding the motivations of evil people – they simply enjoy being evil – and trying to understand them can also be suspicious behaviour in its own right. It discourages thoughtful consideration and encourages emotional engagement instead.
It’s important to be able to know who you are and where you stand on things. It’s important for socialists to know why they are not conservatives and why they oppose conservatism. But if it’s simply that you’re good and conservatives are evil, you’ve lost the plot. Almost everybody thinks of themselves as a basically good person who values things like truth and freedom and justice. There is a huge array of people who could be considered conservative in one way or another. They don’t all share some sort of sinister essence that makes them want to mindlessly oppress other people for no reason. Thinking that way is profoundly short-sighted and unhelpful, and just instantly excludes a huge proportion of the working class from the labour movement, which is not something any socialist should want to do. We actively want to radicalize right-leaning people into seeing themselves as being part of a class and sharing interests with other members of that class.
Secondly, it’s Team Pepsi versus Team Coke.
If you’re a leftist and you’re part of Team Pepsi, you see yourself as part of a progressive spectrum of good people, and more or less allied with liberals, who are bad but at least they’re not bigots! And Team Pepsi is opposed to Team Coke, which is made up of rednecks, white trash, Nazis, congenital oppressors, people who listen to Joe Rogan, and so on. The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of soda pop struggle. It’s the culture war, baby, and there are only two sides. As a member of one team you are required to combat the other at every turn, denouncing their ideas as insane and monstrous, keeping up to date with your team’s talking points, adopting your team’s aesthetics, defending your team’s excesses and rallying around your team’s leaders when they are under attack. You are expected to see all issues through the lens of the soda pop struggle and determine how you feel about each issue based on what your team says about it.
This is as opposed to seeing yourself as a socialist, trying to build a socialist movement, within a working class among which, realistically, approximately nobody is already a committed socialist. Socialism isn’t just liberalism with extra steps. It’s a different way of approaching things altogether, a way of viewing the world through the lens of economic class, a commitment to the well-being and concrete, material empowerment of working people, and ultimately the abolition of the capitalist class altogether. And it requires mass support from workers in order to stand a chance of succeeding—workers from Team Pepsi and Team Coke alike will need to be persuaded to set aside culture war bullshit and deprogram from some of their Fox/CNN brainworms. They will need to start looking at the world as members of an economic class with shared interests, interests which are being actively and very successfully opposed by members of another economic class. Many liberals and conservatives are halfway there already but held back by various fantasies and delusions – the idea that currently existing elites just need to be replaced with more diverse (Team Pepsi) or more patriotic (Team Coke) individuals, for example.
In the current climate, one of the main tasks of socialists is to break people out of the Pepsi-Coke continuum altogether. It is a hypnotizing spectacle which serves the purpose of locking people into a series of false dichotomies simulating political difference – you can have one of two positions about every issue, and all the positions are good for capital. Socialists are not on Team Pepsi or Team Coke. Socialist positions are not good for capital.
Finally, it relies on ‘vulgar intersectionalism’ – and it excludes people from marginalized backgrounds.
Vulgar intersectionalism is an enormous problem throughout the entire left, and consistently stymies our efforts to see the world clearly. I don’t know if I came up with the term ‘vulgar intersectionalism’ – probably not; but what I mean by it is the practice of modelling the world by mapping political positions, one-to-one, onto the identity categories used in intersectional theory. All the posts I’m writing about seemed genuinely to envision conservatives almost exclusively as heterosexual white men. Their authors were worried that the presence of these conservatives would more or less automatically constitute the exclusion of people from other groups, especially Black, LGBTQ, and Muslim people. Modelling the world this way sets up a vision of the political landscape in which one’s location on the left-right spectrum, or one’s degree of social conservatism or progressivism, is determined by one’s identity categories, and the ‘lower’ one is on the intersectional hierarchy, the more correspondingly progressive one is bound to be, and vice versa. And we know that this simply is not the case.
At the risk of sounding dismissive, it’s pretty clear that nobody writing these posts has done much in the way of living and working in the real world. If they had, they would have had the experiences the rest of us have had, in which we realize that not very many people at all are completely on board with the whole ensemble of progressive ideas about race, gender, and sexuality – and indeed that the kind of people who are skew heavily towards white professionals. If you measure conservatism by the degree to which a person holds conservative, reactionary, or just sort of thoughtlessly regressive attitudes about various identity topics, practically everybody you will find yourself working with in the real world counts as some kind of a ‘conservative’. And I hate to break it to these Reddit kids, but that includes people from their pet minority groups.
It’s considered taboo to talk about on the woke left, but those of us who inhabit real life are aware that established ethnic minority groups are often hostile to new immigrant groups; religious Muslims are often extremely conservative about sex and gender; practically everybody outside lefty echo chambers has some hangups about trans people; homophobia is often more pronounced in immigrant communities; the African-American population has a very high rate of membership in evangelical Christian churches and Hispanics are heavily Catholic, leading to regressive attitudes toward issues such as abortion; support for ideas like meritocracy and individualism is very common throughout North America, as is suspicion towards unions and class-based organizing; and so on.
I hope it goes without saying that I’m not claiming that the true progressives are enlightened whites and everybody else needs to learn from them. I’m saying that people’s political orientation can’t be inferred by their identity categories. The world is not a simple place where people with more ‘privilege’ love oppression and cruelty and people with less love recycling and social justice. Insisting on never organizing with anyone ‘conservative’ will not just exclude the cishet white men which vulgar intersectionalism sees as inherently reactionary and right-wing. It will exclude an enormous number of ordinary working people of all backgrounds. Out there in the world you will find Indigenous people who want the cops to sort out the riffraff blocking the pipelines, Black women who demand more police in their neighbourhoods to keep them safe, members of minority ethnic groups who regularly make casually racist comments, immigrants who will tell you with a completely straight face that we should close the borders to these freeloading Third World hordes, and gays who neither know nor care about the latest developments in trans identity jargon. And all of these people can and should be part of the labour movement if they are workers.
Ultimately, I think the urge to silo ourselves off from conservatives speaks to a deep lack of resilience as people, but also a lack of faith in our own ideas. We imagine that being exposed to conservative talking points we find offensive will be an intolerable experience, on par with experiencing literal violence; and we can’t imagine that conservatives being exposed to socialist ideas about class in the context of the labour movement might find those ideas appealing and worth looking into. Other authors have pointed out that in much of the Left it seems as though people no longer have any intention of winning, and are content to retreat into subculturalism, where leftist ideas become more about flagging a certain kind of aesthetic or in-crowd status than about bringing about a post-capitalist economy. When this happens, of course it becomes easier to take more and more extreme or incoherent stances, as these stances now serve primarily as a signal to others within one’s milieu, rather than as a beacon towards which people from outside the milieu can be drawn. Simultaneously it becomes easy to not really believe in the merit of our ideas, since they are not even meant to have substance anymore, only subcultural value. Logically muddled or strategically incomprehensible stances like black and white thinking, participation in the capitalist culture war, or vulgar intersectionalism are a direct result of this situation.
Socialist ideas are good ideas. People being organically radicalized as a direct result of their shitty working conditions need to be exposed to socialist ideas, first because socialists need a mass movement of socialist workers in order to bring about any of our goals and secondly because otherwise they will very likely drift into right populism. Exposing ordinary people to socialist ideas and incorporating them into the labour movement will absolutely and automatically necessitate sustained contact with people who hold views we disagree with. This cannot and should not be avoided; it should be welcomed. If we start to think about socialism as a movement which can actually succeed, we will start to see that our shocking fads, our solipsistic identity-lore, our weird jargon and our Mean Girls subculturalism serve absolutely no purpose and indeed are actively harmful to the socialist project. Let’s ditch the attitude and organize the working class.