In political economy, researchers attempt to translate human decisions into mathematically expressed “functions” to more objectively examine the causes and outcomes of those decisions. A function is a mathematical relationship between two numbers, in which for every input there is a specific output. In life, we see functions operating all the time; for instance, when the pressure of my foot on the gas pedal (the input) determines the speed of my car (the output), all else being equal. Similarly, we can use functional thinking to analyze decisions in American politics, and I believe that it can provide us insights into the failures of the Left in recent times.
Let me first provide the impetus for this short essay. On February 4, 2021, Time published “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election.” As the title implies, it is an article that describes a network of political operatives who conspired in secret to influence the 2020 presidential election. I will summarize the article as follows:
There are more details to this article, and I invite the reader to take a look for themselves. However, what is striking in this entire story is not that “left-wing activists and business titans” formed a grouping to protect the electoral mechanism, but that these “activists” were more than willing to subordinate themselves to a secret, non-elected group representing the heights of private power. Thus, the political decision-making function of activists defined by opposition to Trump, rather than a positive position for the working class, provided a “left-wing” cover to a literal conspiracy of private interests in the management of public consent.
Let us briefly examine what an oppositional political function would look like. Mathematically, the function looks like this: f(x) = -(x), so any political stance taken (output: -x) is the negative of your opponents’ stance (input: x). The problem should be easy to see here: it is extremely easy to interpret and game anyone who uses this function for decision-making. For instance, if I want you to support the tech monopolists that threaten democratic governance, all I need to do is antagonize your political opponents to make you my political friend. This function is one that produces outputs with no reference to any constant factor (i.e., what are the actual policy goals?). The variability of outputs is defined completely by the inputs (x), without any constant factor whatsoever.
To illustrate this, let us assume that we have a continuum from -10 to 10, where -10 is total economic concentration and authoritarianism, and 10 is total economic autonomy and democracy. Assume that you belong to a political tendency that wants to reach level 10, and your opponents are fine with democracy only for substantial property owners at, say, level 3. If you adopt the political function that “Resistance” activists have during the Trump years (f(x) = -1 * x). Meaning, if your opponent suggests a policy position at point 2 on this scale (quite a low level of democracy!), you would then be obligated to support a policy position at point -2. If the society were at a democratic level of 5, you have just helped the opponents of greater democracy reduce its level to their preferred state. The oppositional practice has thus contradicted the stated goals. It is even worse if you form a year-long alliance with those who would seek an authoritarian society at -2; such a reflexive function can make one blind to one’s long-term interests. “An enemy of my enemy” is not always my friend.
Let me elaborate more on this “Resistance” political function, its inputs and its outputs. The media has, for the last five years, waged a campaign of “bombhole” sensationalism against the outrageous lies of Trump and his courtiers. They have all but ignored “that income inequality has increased in nearly all world regions in recent decades” in favor of lurid tales of an anonymous White House “resistance” (not against private capture of public institutions, of course!) and dead-end Russian spy stories too numerous to even cite. These have been the inputs for the political function.
Now for the outputs. Input example one: Trump’s nominal opposition to Silicon Valley. The output: the above described activist subordination to a “well-funded cabal of powerful people” within Silicon Valley. Input example two: Trump’s team offers a $1.8 trillion COVID-19 stimulus plan. Output two: House Speaker Pelosi rejects this because Trump wants “a check with his name on it,” then passes a $900 billion plan at President Biden’s request. Another input: Ted Cruz seemingly offers to support “a hearing if necessary” on market rigging by financial cabals. Another output: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rejects this temporary support even while she is in a position of relative political power in the slight Democratic House Majority!
I’m sure you can see the pattern here.
Much of the American Left’s political decision-making as of late seems to be a simple negative function of the decisions of its opponents. If Trump is for it, we are against it. If Cruz is for it, we are against it. Even if we end up providing cover for a more powerful group of authoritarian private lords who actually threaten the foundations of democracy: We Are Against It!
The “Resistance” in the Trump years has calculated for itself a political function without constants; they have campaigned upon a platform of oppositional inversion, even if it means allying with the greatest monopolists of our time. These politics of inversion have reached further than merely enticing activist support for monopolist-backed “election defenders.” Monopolists like Disney and Apple have no problem stating ambiguous support for Black Lives Matter while bowing to anti-Black racism and authoritarian market forces, as long as it serves the bottom line.
And who can blame them? These market titans have no problem with the race of the individual human cogs, as long as they sustain the momentum of the monopoly machine. How cheap is it, then, to employ a marketing strategy that would be progressive in the 1950s and gain the active support of progressives from the 2020s? For any mega corporation wishing to maintain a hegemonic status, it would be utterly foolish not to do so.
As I have written before, if the workers’ democracy is to work inside a political alliance with powerful outside interests, it must do so from a position of leadership, not subservience. Trump may have talked an authoritarian game, but what would-be dictator would let the COVID-19 crisis occur without a consolidation of power? However, we do know that tech monopolists have used the occasion to accelerate their own accumulation of capital power. How does a political movement prevent being easily led by the nose?
Let us return to our abstract example and say that we add to the above function a constant, perhaps the number eight. We would then have a function, f(x) = -x + 8, which means that no matter what “x” is, we will always add 8 to the output. Eight in the above function represents an ideological position or an objective principal, such as demanding progress towards democracy in the workplace or single-payer health care. Now, in the same scenario, if your opponent proposes policy 2, your response will be -2 + 8 = 6. You have thus established a position closer to your goal of level 10, while still opposing your opponent. Democratic progress!
It seems that during the Trump years and the 2020 election, the American Left in elected office that once supported workers against the forces of monopoly no longer operates on a function with a constant. It seems to have ceded its decision-making power to a crude function of oppositional outputs, defining itself by the inverted stances of Democratic Party opponents.
If those who support a workers’ democracy are to regain and exceed the strength that they had during the early 20th century, establishing a functional constant — their objective principals — is of paramount importance. Perhaps we could start by supporting the right of workers of all races, identities and social-media sophistication to own and manage their workplaces? There are plenty of organizations doing this right now. Otherwise, members of the Left will continue to be pawns in the struggle of liberal tech capital against conservative extraction capital for the foreseeable future. And what a future that will be.