The Cosmopolitan Socialism of Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks, who would have turned 37 years old today, wanted the Left to do better. In the last year of his life, he’d started to write a book about what that might look like.

Michael Brooks (1983–2020) was absolutely committed to bringing about a society where no one was hungry or homeless or unable to live their lives the way they wanted to because of their economic circumstances.

I thought about calling Michael Brooks the night before he died. It had been almost a week and half since he’d reminded me that we were going to co-write an article about his vision of “cosmopolitan socialism.” I felt bad about not following up on that sooner, and I wanted to nail down a time for a writing session. I didn’t end up calling because it was getting late and I didn’t think there was any rush.

This is not that article for the simple reason that Michael isn’t here to do all the things he did when we co-wrote articles for Jacobin. He can’t dictate sentences to me over Skype, quibble with formulations I used in sentences I wrote, and say things like, “I don’t know, brother, let’s not go in that direction.”

I also don’t want to claim that anything I present here represents the final evolution of Michael’s thinking or conclusions he would have stuck to for the rest of his life. Michael had a restless mind. He was always reading new books, interviewing new thinkers, and synthesizing new perspectives in new ways. It would be foolish to predict where else all of that would have taken him if his life hadn’t been cut short this summer.

What I can do is present my understanding of the socialist politics Michael had arrived at in the last two years of his life. I want to do that for two reasons. The first is that he cared deeply about these ideas, and laying them out here feels like a small but meaningful way to honor his memory. The second is that, while it’s impossible to know how his thinking might have evolved in the future, my belief is that he was right about almost all of this stuff and that his insights are important.

Experiments in Living

Last year, when I’d been editing drafts of his book Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right, Michael repeatedly made it clear to me that this was the part of the project that most excited him. The book was originally intended as a response to a group of reactionary intellectuals so lacking in humor and self-awareness that they called themselves “the Intellectual Dark Web,” but by the time he was writing Against the Web, that particular branding exercise was mostly over.

Michael wanted the book to be about something much bigger. He used the IDW as a case study in how non-Trumpist versions of the Right brand themselves in the current landscape. This gave him a chance to take a hard look at how and why the Left so often fails to effectively counter the Sam Harrises and Jordan Petersons of the world, and how we might do better by steering between the rock of the IDW’s Western chauvinism and the hard place of “radical” identitarianism.

For example, in the final chapter (“Beyond the IDW”), he approvingly quotes M. N. Roy’s comment on the Second Congress of the Communist International. “For the first time,” Roy said, “brown and yellow men met with white men who were not overbearing imperialists but friends and comrades.”

Michael goes on to contrast this inspiring vision of global solidarity with the sort of thing we often see in contemporary “woke” discourse. For example, he warns that “remaining forever fearful of cultural appropriation” will “smother the international socialist project I envision by contributing to what Adolph Reed has disparagingly termed ‘essentialism,’ the almost metaphysical belief that culture stands apart from politics and economics.” Michael argued that “there is no magical or particular essence that gives people born into a culture the right to deny those who are not from that culture access to art, ideas, music, and the like.” In fact, we should “be open to all cultures and should in fact embrace and encourage cultural exchange and syncretism.”

Rather than choosing between the woke and bigoted versions of cultural essentialism, or simply dismissing culture on the grounds that no one should care about anything but economics, Michael wanted to take what was best in the tradition of liberal cosmopolitanism and combine it with his core commitment to a more humane and democratic economic order. When no cultural group is stigmatized by being permanently relegated to the status of an impoverished underclass, we can all freely intermingle and freely sample whatever is good (and freely discard whatever is bad) in all of our cultural traditions.

When classical liberal thinkers like John Stuart Mill talked about “experiments in living,” the ideal was a good one. But Michael understood that most people’s ability to experiment is severely constrained by the economic conditions in which they live. It’s all well to tell people, as a libertarian might, that they’re “free” to live in a devout Christian nuclear family or a polyamorous Wiccan compound, but the reality is that, under the current system, many people can’t hold any relationship together because of financial stress — or they’re stuck in bad marriages because they can’t afford to lose their spousal health insurance. Real cultural freedom requires a far more economically equal society.

In Michael’s refutation of Jordan Peterson in the next-to-last chapter, he praised the example of Spain’s worker-owned Mondragon Corporation, which he saw as a preview of what a realistic version of socialism might look like. He didn’t want to portray democratizing the economy as a utopian cure-all. He emphasized that Mondragon “is a work in progress with limitations and internal contradictions to overcome.” Even so, the example of Mondragon and other successful worker co-ops demonstrates that, contra Peterson, “the rigid economic hierarchies that emerge from the separation of labor and ownership can be transcended without this leading to economic collapse or famine or the dragon of chaos terrorizing the countryside.”

The Perils of Moralism

Michael was deeply disturbed by what’s sometimes called “cancel culture.” For one thing, he saw it as a gift to the Right. In Against the Web, he talks about the Right “dining out on endlessly clippable examples of collective performative browbeating.” For another, he saw it as a disturbing sign of a “deficit in empathy” among far too many of his comrades. Here’s how he put it in the part of the book where he discusses Mark Fisher’s classic essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle”:

I am not arguing that no one on the left has ever said or done anything racist or sexist or transphobic, or that we shouldn’t care if they do. I’m also not claiming that we should disavow the historical importance of identity in favor of a simplistic economic reductionism that tells people not to worry about “merely cultural” issues. That’s exactly the wrong way to fight the Vampires’ Castle. What I am saying, however, is that . . . we will continue to devour each other — and thus fail to win power in society — if we don’t reject the confused moralism that permeates so much left-wing discourse.

He hit similar notes in his February 27 Mill Series lecture at Lafayette College. After discussing the dangers of essentialism and urging the Lafayette students to read Adolph Reed, he says that “there’s a lot of conflict between people who are more socialistic and people who are more ‘woke.’” It is, he reiterated, obviously true that “America is a racist society.” Left identitarians aren’t wrong to insist on acknowledging that reality. But the IDW was “exploiting a lot of weaknesses.” When the left side of the culture war spends its time yelling at people about how “Seinfeld is problematic,” it’s not hard to see how that could create an opening for reactionaries to appeal to the “alienated young men” in their target demographic.

His concerns about counterproductive left moralism were at their strongest at the very end of his life. I’ve been lucky enough to read what may have been the last piece of writing he ever did — about a page of notes for a book project that he was just starting to conceptualize. Just before he died, he sent them to his friend Daniel Bessner for comments. I don’t know much about what he had in mind. Neither does Daniel. Neither does David Griscom, who was another of Michael’s frequent collaborators. But whatever he had in mind, those notes are a fascinating window into what he was thinking the weekend before he passed away.

In the last paragraphs, he transitions to a discussion of his spiritual interests, and at the very end, he suggests that the whole thing might have something to do with a discussion of China. But the part that’s most relevant here is his reflections in the first couple paragraphs on recent events in the United States.

The Current Moment

He bemoans that “the 2012 to 2019 resurgence of the social democratic left” has, with “honorable exceptions at the non-national level” been defeated. After the murder of George Floyd, “the uprisings on the street against the vicious and racist realities of American policing” could and should have led to a renewal of substantive action on the issues of “economic justice,” “reinventing policing,” and “expanding the 60s rights revolution.” Instead, we’ve seen an extreme “new round of woke identitarian politics and a new grift opportunity for the diversity industry.” (I suspect that this last might have been meant as a pointed reference to the recent popularity of Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility.) A “culture of snitching, witch hunts and cruelty” that “substitutes for genuine social change.”

Referring back to his refutation of the IDW in Against the Web, he clarified that he was “not here to backtrack.” The IDW types may have been “more right” than he “wanted to acknowledge” about “a cruel and totalitarian drift on the left,” but “the IDW toolkit is not at all up for that challenge.” The IDW-ites want to naturalize persistent inequalities instead of “historicizing” them — i.e., analyzing the contingent historical circumstances in which these features of our society came about so we can understand better how we might move beyond them. He affirms that he still wants to create “a truly democratic and compassion-driven society.” The IDW might be reacting to real things, but they suffer from “one-sidedness, lack of historical knowledge, and unwillingness to engage with the substantive left.”

Confidently asserting that “Adolph Reed could have set all these guys straight in a day,” Michael says that the “anti-essentialist” Marxism he learned from Reed was “the opposite of reductionist.” Instead, it “provides depth.” In a culture “subsumed on all sides by lazy and moralistic essentialism,” this vision of socialist politics “demands historical grounding and a serious commitment to a countervailing source of power to capital.” He understood this political project as being at its core about “expanding freedom to all domains” and “delivering real foundational needs to all.”

I would have loved to read that book. I can’t hope to know everything he would have said in it, and I’m guessing that there would have been things in there about the importance of spirituality and “integral theory” with which I didn’t entirely agree. But I know it would have been sharp and insightful and that I would have learned a lot from engaging with it.

We can’t know how Michael might have continued to evolve in the future. I feel confident, though, that “expanding freedom to all domains” and “delivering real foundational needs to all” would have always been the telos of his politics. Michael was an intellectual, but there was nothing abstract, nothing intellectual, about his core commitments. He was absolutely committed to bringing about a society where no one was hungry or homeless or unable to live their lives the way they wanted to because of their economic circumstances.

When he criticized the Left, he did it because of how badly he wanted us to win.