The Leftist's Dissident Magazine
Sublation is the outlier in this series, because unlike the other publications we have been examining, its dissidence comes explicitly from the left. Headed by leftist media veteran Douglas Lain, Sublation does not emerge as some disruptive new force, but rather as a continuation of the existing left media, which senses it needs to appear critical of itself to stay relevant. Indeed, its “critique of the left from the left” is in many ways a response to a situation in which the left has become synonymous with the establishment and all the dissident energy is going to the right.
So while Sublation is in a different orbit than the dissident right publications with which we have been occupied, it provides an example of how the left is attempting to recapture some of this dissidence for itself. Its inability to generate the same buzz as dissident right media demonstrates, however, that at this juncture, such an effort is dead on arrival.
This is because, at this late date—after the discrepancy between its branding and its reality has become impossible to ignore—the left has such a weak dissident hand to play that any “critique” it produces of itself will be unconvincing. Unable to distinguish itself in any plausible way from the dominant progressive liberalism, the left has ceded its anti-establishment ground to the dissident right, which it is largely responsible for creating.
In the absence of any compelling leftist dissidence, the right has gained a monopoly on the anti-establishment posture historically claimed by the left. After all, much of the energy that has surged through the dissident right has come from an influx of disillusioned leftists out for vengeance against the socialists whose anti-establishment pretenses they once believed but which now have become nothing but a joke.
It is fitting to conclude this series with Sublation, therefore, because its flaccid left-wing dissidence illustrates how leftism becoming the ideological atmosphere of polite society has coincided with the downfall of the left’s credibility as a subversive force. Despite the myriad delusions and contradictions coursing through the publications of the dissident right, the half-hearted and uninspiring leftist dissidence on offer by post-Jacobin outlets like Sublation make it clear that the right has a better dissident story to sell than the left, which in the wake of its recent history (Trump Derangement, Black Lives Matter, Biden-Harris, COVID-19, etc.) has none to sell at all.
Sublation nevertheless makes the effort, drawing from the dissident well of “crisis” and “failure” in a mission statement that begins with references to our “time of crisis,” “the crisis of neoliberalism,” and the failure of “the neo-social democracy of the 2010s” (i.e., the Sanders’ campaigns). But while dissident right media generates some excitement based on a sense of novelty—that is, an anti-capitalist counter-culture not of the left—Sublation’s call for a new left approach appears stale even at the outset.
In this “time of crisis” for the left, in which the “neo-social democracy of the 2010s has failed,” “old leftist sects are dying off,” “and the academic left is all but finished,” Sublation claims “something else is required.” Yet it is hard to comprehend how Sublation’s washed-up leftism is that something else. Instead, it is a hollow gesture toward something else, something old that presents itself as something new without providing anything other than a rebranded version of the leftist politics it timidly criticizes as a play for credibility in a new context. Unable to criticize the left in total, it represents at most a rhetorical, not a qualitative difference from the existing left.
It announces “the old guides and standbys no longer serve,” even as it affirms the familiar terms of left/right polarization and Platypus-style melancholy about the left that went astray. It claims it must do something new because “existing leftist publishing is yoked to compromised organizations and historically exhausted projects,” but it keeps on publishing the same toothless chatter from tired old leftists and Rawlsian Jacobins like Ben Burgis and Matt McManus.
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In short, it generates no conflict or controversy, nothing “else” at all. No one in the “compromised organizations” or “exhausted projects” of the left has any reason to be bothered by it because it brings negligible critical pressure to bear on them. It is but another venue for those one, two, or no steps removed from “existing leftist publishing” or “the academic left” to add another line to their CVs and to keep the endless wheel of leftist media spinning. One is hard pressed to find a Sublation article that would be out of place in the leftist media from which it pretends to differentiate itself. In fact, obsequious interviews with Bhaskar Sunkara and Matt Christman, icons of what it calls the failed “neo-social democracy of the 2010s,” have no doubt drawn the most attention to the project.
Sublation illustrates an awkward juncture for the “dissident” left in which it simultaneously reflects a need to appear self-critical and an inability to be so. Its mission statement claims that attempting a “new beginning” demands “spurning all thought taboos,” yet unlike the dissident right’s provocations, its limp suggestions for the self-improvement of the left fail to get a rise out of anyone.
The dissident right may be a farcical echo of utopian leftism, but it has seized the anti-establishment opportunity the left has granted it, capturing the audience of disaffected liberals looking for oppositional alternatives to a pervasive and stifling atmosphere of progressive liberalism. Demonized by Democrats, it can plausibly present itself to these types as “something else,” whereas the left is helpless to regain its dissident edge because the left is this very progressive liberalism. It is unable to criticize itself totally and not partially, because in doing so, it would cease to be the left.
Sublation seeks to overcome the left’s “exhausted projects” with “something else” that is nevertheless still the left, yet this doomed sublation represents in fact the exhaustion of leftist dissidence, a subversiveness that has emptied itself in the ideological ascendance of leftism, the precondition of the dissident right and the golden age of its magazines.
As always, excellent and penetrating analysis. I envy your ability to see through the fog and capture the essence of these various movements and publications.
Great points have been made.
Notice how places like Compact and Sublation's main selling point is only scratching the surface of what the dissident right talks about every day (Covid, lab leak, transgenderism, etc.)
Everything the left had was exhausted in 2020 with Bernie. Now many of their ideas have been adopted or have become antiquated.
I think it's time for the whole of the left (dirtbag or not) to call themselves democrats. This has already been illustrated by Aimee and yourself so there is no point in beating a dead democrat horse.
The right still has Trump who at least either directly or indirectly posed a threat to the state, so much so that every state institution was used to silence him in 2020.
What can the left say about Bernie outside of some DNC careerist woman saying privately in emails that she prefers her girl boss friend Hillary?
And now Bernie is indistinguishable from the rest of the Democratic party.