Down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass, young writers and editors dressed in black crowd into the offices of Verso Books, open Brooklyn Lagers, and gird their loins for intellectual combat. The editors of the leftwing journal Dissent are about to face off against the founders of the new rightwing magazine American Affairs. As the crowd settles down, the moderator introduces the two sides: “On my right is the left … and on my left is the right.”
She is not the first person to have felt that way in the past twelve months. Last year, when Hillary Clinton was refusing to release her speeches to Goldman Sachs, Donald Trump was saying things like, “.” As Emmanuel Macron met with union leaders in Amiens this April, Marine Le Pen rushed to the picket line and announced, “.” In England, Jeremy Corbyn could barely bring himself to oppose the Brexit referendum. After its passage, he said “Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle.”
Such strange reversals are perhaps what inspires Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin, the editors of American Affairs, to begin by reaching out to their interlocutors. Pappin discusses America, the book Jean Baudrillard wrote after visiting the U.S. One of the things Baudrillard noticed was an emerging “fourth world” made up of “disintensifying zones” that had been left behind by globalization. In short: Left and right both see the same problem—which means they might be able to agree on solutions.
Krein says, “I realize this event has been advertised as a debate … but the most important aspect of today’s politics is how much we agree.” Universal healthcare, revisions to trade policy, spending on infrastructure—on all these Krein sees himself in agreement with the editors of Dissent. More fundamentally, he says, both sides want to “repoliticize” issues that have lately been taken out of the realm of democratic debate and made subject to a false “technical bureaucratic politics.”
If anyone on the left is likely to be open to such an unlikely proposal, it should be Sarah Leonard and Tim Shenk, the editors representing Dissent. In 2012, Leonard published an admiring with Wendell Berry, whose writings she had found after reading I’ll Take My Stand, the nostalgic manifesto of the southern agrarians. Shenk, for his part, is probably the only person who has a book by Samuel Francis in the pages of the Guardian.
Not even these relatively radical and adventurous thinkers are able to escape the shirts-and-skins dynamic of American politics. Leonard begins her remarks by saying, “It’s not polite to call someone else’s journal a crypto–white nationalist project, but…” Shenk insists that whatever agreements Dissent and American Affairs might have on political economy, “the culture wars aren’t over.” Neither bothers to say where and why they disagree with Krein and Pappin on economics, something that might help clarify the cultural differences as well.
In response to this broadside, Krein disavows any interest in a racially defined nationalism. For him, the nation is a matter of adoption rather than birth. It encompasses all “legal citizens, right now, today,” unlimited by any racial or religious category. Nonetheless, legal citizenship “means something more than a formality … it becomes the primary identity … the primary basis on which government policy is evaluated, as opposed to abstract notions of globalism.” Far from trying to call up the chthonic forces of blood and soil, Krein begins with a simple legal stipulation. This is not exactly Nazism made new. If anything, Krein’s nationalism sounds too modest and procedural to compete with the moral urgencies and market demands of globalism.
As the scrum goes on, it becomes clear that along with a difference in opinion there is a difference in tone. Krein and Pappin seem to be trying on new ideas, searching out unmapped terrain—more doubters of the old religion than founders of a new sect. Shenk and Leonard, meanwhile, speak with the serenity of well-trained Thomists. At one point, Krein raises a point about solidarity. Leonard retorts: “There is some historiography I could introduce you to, because we have been asking these questions for a while.” Have a question? No need to think it through. Go back to Prima Pars, Question 2, Article 3.
We are deep in the heart of bourgie Brooklyn, and the crowd of gentrifiers thrills when Shenk and Leonard accuse their interlocutors of racism. But some are left unsatisfied by the subordination of economic questions to identity politics. During the question period, a woman stands up to complain.
“As someone who considers myself a leftist, I did feel sometimes a little bit uncomfortable with the only calls for building broad solidarity coming from the right. Not because I don’t understand—I do very much understand—why we also need to be looking at issues related to gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. But I would like you to speak a little bit more about class and where you see that fitting in and how to build class solidarity in a way that takes into account a large percentage of the Trump voters.”
A man more bluntly asks: “What do you think the value is of rhetorical moral blackmail?”
I decide to ask Shenk and Leonard a question, too.
“I am an anti-abortion, socialist Roman Catholic, and I wonder … at what point do the economic questions trump the cultural ones for you?”
They look at me as if I were a bearded lady. Shenk responds first.
“To the extent that the left stands for anything, it stands for emancipation.”
Leonard points out that culture and economics cannot be fully separated. Perhaps because she has noticed that I am a white man, she further observes that one’s ability to see how they go together will be affected by one’s position within various sexual, racial, and class hierarchies.
Both points are no doubt true. But what makes today’s left so sure that economic justice and sexual liberation coincide in the way, say, that truth, beauty, and goodness do in the schemes of theologians? Granting that culture and economics intersect, isn’t it a bit odd that the social views of the average leftwing editor are indistinguishable from those of the CEO of Apple? Men like Eric Schmidt think that free markets and free love are by no means irreconcilable. In this judgment they are joined by every pope since Leo XIII. Any left unable to see the way we are enslaved by lust will end up the unwitting handmaiden of those who exploit.
After the debate, people gather at the window to smoke. I go to the bar, where I overhear Leonard offer Pappin an invitation. “You know, you’re welcome to join the left any time you want.” I cannot hear whether he accepts or declines.
The man behind the bar asks me whether I have heard of social reproduction theory—a way of looking at childbearing in economic terms.
“Of course,” I answer. “I started out opposing abortion, but it was only after thinking in those terms that I became a socialist.”
He raises a finger in objection and is about to speak when someone pulls him away.
When I finish my craft beer (“$5—or pay what you can”), I wander out to the restroom, where the man at the next urinal leans over and says, “You must be a big fan of Pope Francis?”
It is a question I am asked every time I end up somewhere enlightened views on sex can be assumed. I disappoint by saying no.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.