It was the summer of 2013, and I was engrossed in an online essay extolling Severus Snape as the greatest example of female heroism in the Harry Potter series. While acknowledging Snape’s obvious maleness, the author insisted he was infused with symbolic femininity, among other things, demonstrated by Snape’s preference for potions over “phallic” wands.
While seemingly trivial, the argument made sense within the context of fandom. Concerned posts and essays proliferated about whether the popularity of white male characters was holding back the socially transformative potential of fan culture, prompting an outpouring of pieces from fans arguing their favorite characters had hidden subversive qualities — that superficially white and male characters were actually coded as queer or feminine, or even as people of color.
In short, it was a social justice arms race. Online progressive activism had combined with geek culture to create an environment in which someone’s taste in fiction was equated with their politics and personal morality. And I was in the thick of it.
My immersion within the progressive geek community was always ambivalent. I loved to analyze the ideological currents of fiction and saw pop culture as a useful source for illustrating broader issues — the role of real-world racial stereotypes in the construction of Tolkien’s fantasy races, for example, or the predominance of male non-player characters in video games.
But I stopped short of believing that media criticism was a significant form of activism; it always looked suspiciously like a way for my fellow geeks and former humanities majors to inflate our own sense of power and the importance of our interests.
Still, I tried to keep an open mind. Most criticisms of “social justice” theory came from reactionary conservatives, and while I was vaguely aware of leftists who took a more structural approach to oppression and inequality, I had never been particularly impressed by them. Often referred to as “class reductionists” by social justice activists, they seemed like just another group trying to promote their pet cause above all others.
After all, how could capitalism be the cause of all oppression when oppression obviously existed before capitalism? Did these people believe that the pre-capitalist world had been some kind of utopia, or were they using a definition of capitalism that somehow applied to all of human history? I was also alarmed that radical leftists seemed skeptical of electoral politics — a stance that seemed to me both elitist and lazy.
But within a year of the Snape wars, I was nearing the end of my rope. Fandom imbroglios seemed increasingly less harmless and amusing: people were getting harassed and labeled abuse apologists for enjoying unhealthy fictional relationships, while actual relationships were being destroyed over differing political interpretations of fiction. More importantly, I became increasingly certain that my reservations about this kind of online activism were rooted in its ideological implications, not just its lack of engagement with the real world.
I could no longer tolerate the invasively psychoanalytic and confessional tendencies of what I then believed to be radical thought. The problem was, I couldn’t fully define my objections or articulate an alternative. Maybe, I thought, I was just wired more conservative than the people around me. Feelings of shame and anxiety swept over me.
But when I found myself breaking down in tears over what had once been a fun hobby, I realized my efforts to reconcile myself to this purportedly radical milieu had failed. I stepped back and reassessed. I decided to examine the forces behind the vicious culture wars I had witnessed, embarking on a winding path of reading and thinking that led me, unexpectedly, to socialism.
Like many liberals I had always subscribed to a political narrative that rooted the conservatism of US politics — and by extension the problems of society — in the cultural conservatism of the American people. In particular, I assumed that the racism and religious fundamentalism of the poor prevented them from voting in their economic interest. I thought this deep cultural conservatism could only be eradicated, and social justice achieved, by gradually educating the populace. Thus the importance of pop culture and media.
In my understanding of the mechanisms of social change, there was hardly any middle ground between elections and revolutionary violence. I knew that unions existed, but only as groups that advocated higher wages for workers in particular industries, and I thought of social movements as a means for “raising awareness” that would then be channeled back into electoral politics.
But as I read more I became convinced that the most powerful people in the world were not politicians, but capitalists. I realized that ordinary Americans have very little influence over the actions of the government and that the Democratic Party does not actually represent the economic interests of the majority of people — that its leaders aren’t just waiting for more popular support to enact a sweeping progressive agenda.
Instead, Democrats are beholden to some of the same corporate interests as the Republicans, and working-class and low-income voters’ lack of political power is the main impediment to progressive change — not cultural conservativism.
I learned that the most effective social movements — such as those leading to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and the end of legal segregation — were not only about influencing the electorate and putting pressure on politicians, but about directly challenging a corporate ruling class that no one had ever voted for. I discovered that socialists participate in the electoral system, but fight their battles in the workplace and the community, building democratic movements to challenge the status quo.
This revelation about the structure of power in society was powerful. It convinced me that taxes and welfare were not enough to ensure a high standard of living for everyone, because the ruling class will constantly attack and undermine progressive politics as long it has the leverage to do so.
To be sure, this understanding left me with a harsher picture of society than I’d previously imagined. But it was incredibly liberating to realize that justice and democracy were not conflicting values, and that the working class is central to socialist theory because it is in the best position to effect systemic change — not because its problems are presumed to be the only real ones.
When socialists speak of class, they don’t mean class-based prejudice is worse than other forms of prejudice, or that exploitation is worse than other forms of oppression. Economic structures and labor relationships shape everyone’s lives; socialists care deeply about racism and sexism — they just take a materialist approach to these issues. Moreover, while socialists focus on capitalism because it is the reigning economic system, their form of analysis offers insights into other kinds of class societies throughout history.
My new understanding of power also called into question my conception of social change. Believing in “democratic efficiency” — the idea that polices in democratic countries are driven by popular opinion rather than concentrated power — no longer seemed tenable. While language, symbolism, psychology, and individual agency shape political and economic processes, they fail to explain the root causes of injustice, oppression, and inequality.
Emphasizing agency is supposed to be more nuanced than focusing on institutions or structures. But it often results in an excessive optimism about “dialogue” and “raising awareness” — not to mention endless arguments over whether erotic fan fiction is helping or hurting the revolutionary cause. Placing too much faith in words and symbols can make us vulnerable to misdirection, and overvaluing complexity can crowd out clear analyses of power relationships.
A telling example is a comment former Jeopardy contestant and progressive writer Arthur Chu made last fall on Twitter: “I think Thatcher’s government was horrible and evil and ALSO that her being a woman PM was awesome & historic. Both can be true.”
For Chu, acknowledging the “evil” of Thatcher’s policies was enough to counterbalance his praise. But by juxtaposing the “evil” and “awesome” aspects of Thatcher’s administration with no evaluation of their relative impact, he created a false equivalence — as if the representational value of a female prime minister somehow outweighed the material harms Thatcher inflicted on Britain, including its working-class women.
Masquerading as nuanced, this is instead a failure to think in systematic terms — symbolism without political economy. Reading Thatcher’s election positively also rests on the “democratic efficiency” assumption that sexism among voters, rather than party and donor networks, is the greatest obstacle facing women in politics.
Support for an elite woman is thus a sign of incremental progress, and her symbolic power can be expected to trickle down to other women by catalyzing a transformation of popular attitudes. Economic justice, meanwhile, is framed not as an essential component of gender equality, but as a separate goal that is often in competition with it.
Chu’s comment is a somewhat extreme example — not all social justice activists would go so far as to defend Margaret Thatcher. But even those with a more radical perspective promote ideas that obscure power structures. In particular, there’s a certain vagueness around the words “structural” and “institutional,” which are often treated as if they refer to an aggregation of individual prejudices and behaviors instead of elite-dominated political and economic systems.
For example, Andrea Smith, in her popular “The Problem with ‘Privilege’” writes about the importance of focusing on “the larger systems that make the entire world unsafe” instead of “interpersonal conduct.” But the specifics of her argument undermine the point: one of her suggestions for dismantling “privilege on an organizational level” is that every speaker with a college degree bring along a co-speaker who lacks one.
Moreover, although Smith condemns the shaming of individuals for their privilege, the thrust of her argument is that privilege theory doesn’t go far enough in generalizing the blame for social problems: “This rhetorical strategy presumes that only certain privileged subjects can make the space ‘unsafe’ as if everyone isn’t implicated in heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism and capitalism.” Activists should instead operate from the presumption that they are “complicit in the structures of white supremacy/settler colonialism/heteropatriarchy etc.”
While it’s undeniable that all kinds of people are capable of enacting oppression, the idea that everyone is automatically complicit in oppressive systems by virtue of living within them can have ugly implications. Smith appears to believe the assumption of mass guilt will make people less hasty to judge others, creating a more supportive environment in activist spaces.
In my experience, however, it is more likely to encourage a type of politics in which various marginalized groups are held responsible for the oppression of others, such as the construction of Asian Americans as enablers of white supremacy.
Smith herself has said that immigrants who come to the United States “to advance economically” have failed to consider “their complicity in settling on the lands of indigenous peoples.” Such rhetoric ends up undermining solidarity.
Socialism provides a more consistent and effective way to realize the values I held as a self-identified liberal. It’s moral without being moralistic, arguing that the best way to change people’s behavior is to attack the systems that force them into competition, and that the material self-interest of the working class is a better motivating principle than concepts of sin and redemption.
Socialists assume that while circumstances and experiences vary drastically, most people deserve more than what they have, and that we share a common interest in working toward a future where everyone has the means to thrive. Once one accepts that premise — all people have a right to safe and comfortable lives — and sees the dominant institutions of society thwart it at every turn, it’s hard not to embrace a politics labeled “socialist.” And ditch the Snape wars.