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Why are leftists hard to understand? This is a simple question. And it is especially relevant today, when the left is in retreat.
Charlie Bertsch and Joel Schalit

Issue #26, May 1996

Why are leftists hard to understand? This is a simple question. And it is especially relevant today, when the left is in retreat. But it is not an easy question to answer. After all, what is hard for one person to understand often seems easy to another. Unfortunately, many of the people who think leftists are hard to understand are the same people we want to reach. Leftists may do a good job of conversing with each other, but politics involves talking to strangers.

Because many people find our own writing difficult to understand, we think it is important to write this essay and try to explain the reasons why leftist arguments seem inaccessible to so many people. The concepts leftists employ are a big part of the problem. Words like "alienation", "fetishization", "reification", "ideology", and "hegemony" are hardly common currency. To the average person, they are extremely daunting. No doubt, their strangeness has the power to intrigue some people. But it also has the power to make many others stop paying attention. Why use them at all if they might contribute to a communication breakdown?

For some self-proclaimed leftists, the answer is all too simple: they like the fact that these words scare people off. Intellectuals have always been more inclined to profess their leftism, but not always for the right reasons. This is especially true in countries like the United States where leftists have had little access to power. The marginality of leftism appeals to many people who reject the status quo, not because they want to provoke change, but because they want to be different. To people who want to distance themselves from the masses, words like "ideology" and "reification" are the perfect way to repel all those 'normal' people who comprise the 'masses'. These are the worst kind of 'self-marginalizing' leftists, for they marginalize themselves — consciously or not — out of a desire to distinguish themselves from the same people they are supposed to be helping.

But as necessary as it is to critique this sort of leftism, there is a danger that we may go too far, deciding that all desire to reject the status-quo is a mere fashion statement. For leftism to be meaningful, leftists have to remain critical of society. However while many pseudo-leftists use words like "hegemony" to seem cool, there are also committed leftists who use them because they are useful. The complexity of capitalism provides the most compelling argument for using such difficult words: they are needed to make this complexity intelligible. This is best understood metaphorically (By "metaphor" we mean both direct likenesses — "The state is a body" — and those made using "like" or "as" — "Bureaucracies are as complex as beehives.") Capitalism is like a huge monolith that presents a smooth surface to the world. If we look at it from the front, it appears deceptively simple. Only when we look at it from off to the side, above, and behind do we realize how many sides it has or how much depth is concealed by its facade. Difficult concepts like "reification" and "ideology" force us to adopt the unconventional perspectives that make this complex vision possible. Think of capitalism as a movie set that recreates a town. From the angle we are supposed to view it, it looks like a real town. From other angles, however, we can see that this town is a fake, like the one in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. The real structure of capitalism differs radically from the way it appears to function.

If one word could substitute for the complicated metaphors used above, it would be on par with these concepts. Such substitution has an obvious advantage: it saves time and energy. Instead of devising figures of speech each time we want to talk about the complex ideas denoted by the word "ideology", we can just say "ideology". In other words, we give up the idiosyncrasies of invention for the economy of language held in common. Private abstractions are replaced with a public abstraction we agree upon. The standardization this entails brings an added benefit. Words have a history. In using a word like "ideology" we conjure up the manifold uses other people have given it. The same could be said for a metaphor, of course, but the process is much more distinct in the case of a single word. Because words like "ideology" and "fetishization" are difficult for the average reader, they are particularly effective at calling this historical consciousness forth. Everyday words like "tree" are used much more unconsciously. Many leftists are reluctant to surrender specialized words like "reification" once they have learned them because the words' strangeness prevents people from taking their meaning for granted.

When leftists do forego specialized language for the sake of winning a larger audience, they are faced with a dilemma. If that language helped them to see in a new way, isn't it rather odd to hide it from others? As Jonathan Sterne put it in a recent debate on the Bad Subjects mailing list, leftists who do this risk being guilty of a condescension that reveals "why populism is politically and ethically bankrupt." He asks: "Why does a working class politics have to be anti-intellectual?" He argues that "the answer has more to do with the politics among intellectuals...than it does with the politics between classes" and that "the elitism of populism is that working people 'just won't get' our ideas, and therefore we'd better be quiet and do what they tell us. Where I come from, when you respect someone, you hold them to the same standards you hold yourself to."

To put this another way, when leftists simplify complex problems by boiling them down to their lowest common denominator, they make the mistake that the traditional left has always made about its role in 'interpreting' and 'explaining' events to the 'people.' If leftists indulge in anti-intellectualism of this sort, they are actually asserting their intellectual superiority over ordinary individuals with whom they claim to be equal. Although the original "Manifesto for Bad Subjects" called for leftists to write more accessible prose, it also noted that some arguments in Bad Subjects would be "difficult and demanding to read, because we are trying to explain something which is difficult and demanding to understand," adding that "if what we have to say is hard, then let it be hard."

The difficult part is deciding when an argument is too hard for the people it is trying to reach. No one likes feeling condescended to. But no one likes feeling lost either. By refusing to condescend to their audience, leftists risk going to the opposite extreme. It is one thing if people ask you why your writing is so hard to understand; quite another if they are too put off to bother. Difficulty can also be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. If friends invite you to go backpacking in the wilderness without warning you what equipment you'll need, they are being disrespectful. Of course, if they tell you what you need, but you can't pay for it, the effect is the same.

This analogy helps to explain the problem with all specialized languages. Even if people who aren't intellectuals have the capacity to understand complex arguments, it takes time for them to learn the vocabulary in which they tend to be argued. Considerable training is required to make sense of leftists who talk about "hegemony" and "reification." By acquiring knowledge of these concepts, people win the power to comprehend leftist critiques. As the slogan always reminds us, "Knowledge is power." However, in our capitalist society knowledge always comes at a price. Although it is sometimes difficult to tell who really pays that price — government, taxpayers, or the poor who prop up an unjust system? — it is impossible to deny that acquiring knowledge costs money.

When we talk about knowledge opening doors, we need to remember that there's always a cover charge. If leftists had the financial resources to pick up the tab to educate the masses, this wouldn't matter. As long as they don't, leftists' use of specialized language is going to be troubling. We would all like to think that learning isn't shopping, that the pursuit of knowledge does not depend on the pursuit of wealth, that knowledge is not merely a function of capital. Why would any leftist want to believe that people may have to choose between paying the heating bill and paying for the privilege of understanding commodity fetishism? Unfortunately, there is a lot of truth to this bleak vision. It really is the case that we must buy access to the meaning of specialized words the way players on Wheel of Fortune buy vowels. Our unwillingness to make this equation exemplifies the power of capitalism to blind us to the way it really works.

Recognizing that knowledge literally comes at a price is not the same thing as saying that people who know a lot necessarily own a lot. Spending ten years studying politics or art doesn't even guarantee a job, much less a fortune. As anyone suspicious of higher education's usefulness will tell you, having too much scholarly knowledge can be a disadvantage in the so-called 'real world'. But the fact that some knowledge brings little monetary reward does not mean that it is without cost. Those who pursue knowledge for its own sake still do so at someone's expense, even if the source of funds is concealed behind state educational institutions.

This is something that leftists who use specialized language can not afford to forget. If we're going to use costly words, we need to compensate our audience accordingly. This means we should only use them if we are willing to translate the concepts they express into words familiar to more than a privileged few. One solution would be to make sure that words like "ideology" and "fetishization" are always accompanied by their definitions. However, there are problems with this approach. For one thing, the concepts these words express are hard to pin down exactly. When we define a word, we give the impression that its meaning is fixed. But the specialized words leftists use are useful for describing capitalism because they convey the always-mutating multi-facetedness of all meaning in a capitalist society. In addition, definitions are usually so dry that they reinforce the aura of inaccessible intellectualism that they are meant to dispel.

Political activists are suspicious of language that is not meant to be taken literally. Unstable meanings disturb them. And the time and energy that go into devising metaphors can seem wasteful when so many crises around the world cry out for a response. This is why so many leftists have a bias against the use of figurative language. "Why not get to the point?," they wonder. What they fail to acknowledge when they make this argument is the way capitalism constrains our perception. It makes us see individual points instead of what connects them, as if they were isolated bits of ice and not the tips of a vast iceberg hidden beneath a deceptively simple surface.

It's a shame so many leftists have an aversion to language that's not literal. Figures of speech can describe capitalism in ways that mere definitions cannot. The ambiguities they bring into play mirror the ambiguities of life under capitalism. Metaphoric language does this particularly well, because it makes connections between dissimilar phenomena. It helps us make sense of the unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar. When we use metaphors and similes to paraphrase specialized words, we give our audience a foothold in our argument. If we say that an individual's "ideology" functions paradoxically as both shelter and prison for her or his thoughts, we draw attention to its ambiguities in a concrete way. If we say that "hegemony" is consolidated by a vision of society with the same power to unify as the improbable plot of a mystery novel in which all loose ends are miraculously tied together, we suggest that hegemony has both visual and narrative dimensions. In both cases, our use of metaphors makes it easier for readers to understand these specialized words instead of denying access to their mysteries.

Throughout this essay, we have tried to overcome our own reluctance to use figurative language in order to make this point. By using metaphors to paraphrase our meaning, we hope to have indicated how useful they can be for leftists who are committed to clarity without condescension. In trying to convey the complexity of capitalism to people who do not have the luxury to analyze round-the-clock, we must continually affirm our commitment to the political importance of explaining ourselves. This means taking the time to compensate our audience for whatever specialized words we find it necessary to use.

It is true that in order to make arguments that are both complex and accessible, we must perform a difficult balancing act. The time we have to comment on most issues is limited, our work overwhelming. But we can't let such constraints convince us to be overly simple or overly difficult. If we are too simple, we end up rationalizing the status quo, for we fail to expose the inner workings of capitalism. On the other hand, if we use a specialized language without reflecting on its implications, we will only be able to illuminate people who have already seen the light. No matter how supple our arguments, they will have failed to reach the people who need them most: those who have yet to be enlightened by leftist analyses of capitalism.

As leftists, we need to work harder at self-critique. This means paying close attention to the ways in which we construct arguments, even as we try to untangle the knotty problems with which capitalism confronts us. In order to make our collective experiences meaningful for everyone, leftists have to unlearn their own inherited language, then critically reconstruct it before they try to assume the responsibility of explaining the world to everyone else. Leftists have to make it their highest priority to explain what binds all of us to injustice, oppression and slavery, before we start trying to subvert the status quo. Of late, most leftist intellectuals have seemed to operate in a hermetically-sealed, self-referential world, having turned their backs on the ordinary people they supposedly want to reach. Their unwillingness to explain what they understand to those who don't has been a big part of the problem. If you don't need to explain anything, then you haven't picked the right audience. To the extent that we're going to help people find their way through the desert wastes of our capitalist society, we have to give them the tools necessary for the journey. Metaphors are a good place to start.

Charlie Bertsch and Joel Schalit are co-founders of the SCH club. Charlie is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at UC-Berkeley, currently at work on a dissertation entitled "Subverting the System: Models of Resistance in Post-WWII American Culture". Joel is a Ph.D. student in the Programme in Social and Political Thought (SPT) at Canada's York University. He is about to begin work on a dissertation exploring the relationship between religion and modernity. Write them at the e-mail addresses listed above.

Copyright © 1996 by Charlie Bertsch and Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.

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