The Banality of Freddie theBore
On the Limits of Anti-Woke Leftism
I’ve been surrounded by talk of Freddie deBoer ever since I began conducting a critique of the left. Although he was mostly absent from public life at the time, I was aware of his reputation as a confrontational dissident, both because I was familiar with some of the controversy he had previously generated and because a chorus of sympathetic voices kept insisting he was a pioneering critic of the woke left.
One heard stories of him becoming too dangerous for Nathan J. Robinson to tolerate at Current Affairs or saw screenshots like the one below reverentially passed around as if it contained the most penetrating insight of the age. Someone engaged in criticism of the left, such as myself, was supposed to feel as if deBoer was a trailblazer who deserved admiration for braving the left’s cancel mobs and paving the way for those who followed him.
Such commentary must have incited the wrath of a puritanical left whose enthusiasm for intersectionality was reaching a fever pitch. And I don’t doubt that deBoer faced consequences for pushing back against the leftist censors. What I do doubt, however, is that deBoer has ever had any fundamental conflict with the left or that his criticisms were ever as trenchant as they might have felt at the time.
deBoer has always been a critic of the left’s excess, not the left itself. His objection to this or that piece of leftist decadence mystifies how the left functions as a whole to reinforce the existing society. Lacking any critical view of the left in general, he remains a true believer inside of it, naively urging it to drop its worst tendencies for its own good, as if the good of the left is anything other than that of progressive liberalism.
For deBoer, the left’s “bad habits” do not inevitably flow from its class nature, but are merely unfortunate and self-destructive deviations from its true course, which his earnest protests intend to correct. He has no essential antagonism with the left, only strategic quibbles with his more zealous teammates.
Despite the vitriol he may have incurred from the left, deBoer has always remained a devoted leftist who simply wants it to become a better left. As he put it himself in a 2017 blog post: “I have and have always had perfectly conventional left views on politics, particularly on social issues like racism and sexism, so it’s sometimes strange to see as much angina as I generate from left-wing people. I’ve simply had broad disagreements on how to bring about the vision of a more just world I share with those left and liberal people.” As deBoer admits, he agrees in principle with his supposed intersectional adversaries; he merely disagrees about tactics.
deBoer’s mild, constructive suggestions for the self improvement of the left may have seemed ruthlessly destructive at the time, but only because of the left’s ferocious reaction to it, not because they contained any fundamental challenge. Read outside the context of leftist backlash, it is difficult to recognize how exactly deBoer contradicts the activist left he supposedly criticizes.
This has become more apparent since his recent return to blogging. While deBoer has become one of the most successful political commentators on this platform based in part on his controversial reputation, he does not generate the same level of outrage and resistance from the left as he did half a decade prior. deBoer’s cautious challenge to wokeness may have been novel in 2016, but during his hiatus anti-wokeness developed into a budding market, and others have surpassed him to the point that his recent work is not particularly inflammatory.
He carries on making timid criticisms of the left’s excess, but in a different context: the Sanders campaigns are over and “critical voices” like his now serve the left in an important way. Their superficial complaints keep disaffected “class-first” leftists in the fold, leading them to believe that reform is possible, evidenced by the visibility of woke-critical leftists like Freddie deBoer. This all contributes to a situation in which deBoer trades on his outsider credentials as a leftist insider who shores up the left with his toothless criticisms.
It is difficult to distill deBoer’s political views because, to keep his many readers stuffed with content, he serves them an endless deluge of extemporaneous writing on whatever topic just popped into his head—a slapdash method, which I maintain, precludes analysis of any depth. But if you sift through his daily musings on indie rock, weightlifting tips, and serialized novel chapters, there are a few articles that do more than others to articulate his politics, including his recent op-ed for the New York Times.
In “Democratic Socialists Need to Take a Hard Look in the Mirror,” deBoer assumes his characteristic posture, as the good-faith pragmatist delivering some hard truths to his misguided leftist comrades: “it’s time for young socialists and progressive Democrats to recognize that our beliefs just might not be popular enough to win elections consistently. It does us no favors to pretend otherwise.”
As usual, deBoer claims to share the same goals as “progressive Democrats” who want to “pull the party left,” something he claims “Bernie Sanders’s two noble failures in Democratic presidential primaries” have already in part achieved. He only seeks to persuade them, for strategic reasons, to face the fact that they are losing the battle of ideas. If they want a bigger squad in Congress and “socialist policies in the United States, there is no alternative to the slow and steady work of changing minds.”
deBoer’s “critique” of the socialist left is that it needs to accept that its project of transforming the Democratic Party won’t happen without “taking a long, hard road to spread our message. . . . Which is to say, it will take decades.” Although framed as some kind of polemical confrontation, it’s hard to imagine how this call for patient organizing clashes in any way with the socialist left, which exists to maintain the eternal promise of reforming the Democratic Party.
Nevertheless, deBoer fears that his wake-up call to young progressives could be such a bitter pill for them to swallow that it “may be seen as a betrayal of the socialist principles I stand for, which are at heart an insistence on the absolute moral equality of every person and a fierce commitment to fighting for the worst-off with whatever social and governmental means are necessary.” Such moral fervor may lead others to feel there is no time to waste when it comes to realizing these “socialist principles.” But the undaunted deBoer risks their ire, cautioning pragmatism “precisely because I believe so deeply in those principles. I want socialism to win, and to do that, socialists must be ruthless with ourselves.”
Of course, his “ruthless” criticism of socialists does not call anything about them or their politics into question other than the zeal and haste with which they seek to implement their shared moral principles. There is nothing inherent to the social position of the left that prevents it from achieving “socialist victory,” only bad strategy. Too many leftists think democratic socialism can be realized overnight, whereas deBoer says decades.
Although deBoer claims to be a Marxist, his stated principles of “moral equality” and “fighting for the worst-off” could come from any liberal politician in the world. Such liberal sentimentality indeed pervades his political writings, including “I Want a Political Movement That’s...Cool,” an article that defines his ideal left movement as one that would respond to “the moral challenge in the face of the other” with compassion, forgiveness, and “the courage to be human even as everyone and everything else demands that we be otherwise.” The courage to be human. The audacity of hope. Love trumps hate. Stronger together.
deBoer’s imagined movement “would reject the anti-individuality of identity politics,” yet this supposed challenger to the woke left accepts all of its pluralistic premises: “Our relentless habit will be to say, what does this do for actually-existing poor people? What does this do for actually-existing Black people? What does this do for actually-existing women or gay or trans people?”
Claiming that such intersectionality is “in keeping with basic Marxist epistemology,” deBoer insists his theoretical left would recognize (as if it doesn’t already) racial and gender discrimination as unique forms of injustice that must never be mistaken “as merely a function of economic inequality.” The elimination of discrimination must be placed among the “most central moral and political responsibilities” of his ideal left, which would acknowledge that both “the history of the modern world is the history of the domination of non-white races by white races” and the history of the world itself “is a history of the domination of women by men.”
deBoer fantasizes about a better left, but even the left of his dreams can’t help reciting the intersectional mantras of the existing one. Other than being more pleasant (recognizing “that cruelty, shaming, and petty insults are among the master’s tools”), deBoer’s ideal left movement is in fact hardly distinguishable from the actual left he purportedly criticizes. But is the left’s unpleasant behavior not merely an expression of the intersectional ruling-class politics it shares with deBoer?
And if you think fame and fortune have caused deBoer to compromise his iconoclastic positions over the years, a look back at his earlier writings shows that every half-criticism of the left he’s ever made has been enveloped in such paeans to intersectionality. For example, his celebrated 2015 essay on “critique drift” epitomizes his enduring tendency to make ten apologies and concessions for every lightly critical remark he makes about the intersectional grievance politics with which he agrees in principle. His very concept of “critique drift”—“in which a particular critical political lens that correctly identifies a problem gets generalized and used less and less specifically over time”—indeed exemplifies his theoretical agreement with the various woke concepts he claims only go wrong when they lose their specificity.
“Very obvious examples of critique drift” include terms like “mansplaining” and “tone policing,” which highlight for deBoer “real phenomena.” His concern is that it “fuels backlash” against the leftist cause when these concepts are used “in a sloppy, unhelpful, or dishonest way,” but he takes great pains to acknowledge the underlying validity of the concepts: “I have occasionally been surprised to meet people who think that I don’t believe, for example, that mansplaining or tone policing are real, or even worse that I don’t think privilege is real. Of course I think those things are real. They’re real and pernicious and have to be accounted for.”
deBoer reveals the habitual drift of his critique toward servility when he claims “privilege theory and intersectionality are the perfect example” of how “the terms of social justice politics that seem to be employed in the most unhelpful ways often spring from smart, perceptive places.” For deBoer, both privilege theory and intersectionality “contain trenchant critiques, but also a complex and careful set of limitations and guidelines that agitate against using those critiques frivolously.” He has no problem with these bourgeois theories, only the fact that in the tactless hands of zealous activists, “the acidity of the critique tends to be preserved, not the care or limitation.”
The problem of critique drift demonstrates, for deBoer, “why a healthy, functioning political movement can’t forbid tactical criticism of those with whom you largely agree.” And in this statement, he summarizes the limitations of his own critique. deBoer has never critiqued the premises of the left, because he agrees with them, something of which he is constantly reminding his readers. He only offers “tactical criticism” that seeks to turn their common intersectionality into “a healthy, functioning political movement.”
deBoer’s constant complaint is that the left’s excesses and unpleasant tactics prevent it from functioning properly. But my complaint is that deBoer’s pseudo-criticisms obscure the fact that the left already is “a healthy, functioning political movement,” just one that inherently achieves bourgeois ends, which no amount of hand-wringing about tactics can alter.
If you are a self-loathing leftist, frustrated with the Democratic Party to which you are nevertheless tethered, you will find comfort in deBoer’s quixotic pursuit of “a better left.” But if you recognize the left for what it really is—an instrument of bourgeois class rule—you have nothing to gain from the banality of Freddie theBore.