What the hell deradicalized me?
I used to know who was good and who was bad. What happened to me?
One time, not all that long ago, I ran a little Marxist reading group. It was 2017, I was barely sober, and Donald Trump had very recently been crowned President. To me, and to many, this represented the total, final, unmistakable failure of the current system. All with eyes to see would rise up against capitalism and bourgeois democracy, since here we saw its inevitable collapse into the visibly repulsive Trump. What system where a man like Trump could “win” - in business and in politics - could be considered worth anything at all?
Not a lot of people attended my Marxist reading group. I read a lot, and I had questions, and I raised them, and nobody in those circles seemed to have a good answer. If someone works a high-wage job and gets enough money to retire, does that make them bourgeois? What if they get to found their own business with that money instead? How is social mobility possible, if all history is the history of class struggle? What do we make of the USSR? Can the communist party exploit people? What if the government just does the exploiting that the capitalist class supposedly does?
Maybe those questions have answers, good ones. I personally lacked the dedication and imagination to find them, or at least to spend my life looking for them. I was newly sober, remember - full of shame and regret and doing a lot of work to put my life back together, inside and out.
And I did! Or at least it certainly seemed to me that way. I took responsibility for my life, on an individual level. I tried to be trustworthy in relationships, to clean up my messes when I hurt people, to do the things that I said I would do. I became easier to work with, and worked on developing higher-paying skills too. My relationships improved, at work and at home, and my life improved along with them. I couldn’t seem to connect what was happening to me to any of the grand narratives that I’d very recently proposed to explain everything in the world. It felt less and less like I was on the right side of history, on the morally-winning team, that someone out there had all the answers to the doubts I might have. Perhaps I was just slipping into bourgeois ideology like a warm bath, or perhaps the words “bourgeois ideology” didn’t work to describe things in my world anymore.
The more sober time I got and the more sober work I did the less it felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with me, and the less it felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with me the less it felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with the world too. I felt like there MUST be something wrong with this world, something that put all of that pain inside of me that I never asked for. Maybe there is something wrong with this world - I don’t have all the facts - but the urgent and intuitive sense that there is something wrong has faded away for me. Not to say that it went without a fight - I was attached to it! My misery was proof of my sensitivity and superiority. Only a true piece of human garbage would be happy in today’s society, the worst society to ever exist. I am better than the happy people. I hate myself, which makes me better than myself - I know that I’m supposed to be different and better, somehow, and as long as I’m miserable I hang on to that possibility. It’s been a strange thing, letting go of misery, since in many ways it’s also meant letting go of clarity.
Who are the good and bad people? Where is history going? I don’t know anymore. I know that my answers to those questions were driven by my own self-disgust more so than any intellectual insights. It’s not something I’m completely free of, mind you: my self-disgust has now largely gotten wrapped up in my old self-disgust. I recoil from the parts of me that recoiled from the parts of me. The old part of me, so full of righteous anger, is still around, judging me today for my lack of righteous anger. I feel myself in tension with it, and in that tension I find myself in tension with others, others who are like what I once was. People who are angry on the internet. People who devote themselves to expunging the Original Sin that soaks their being, the sin of capitalism, the sin of patriarchy, of heteronormativity, of cisnormativity, of ableism, of sexism - the people who wake up and record videos of themselves scolding the camera to publish in the endless stream of others doing the same thing. To fold in with common anger and to call it bravery.
I recoil from them not because they are wrong, at least not necessarily, but because I find that way of being to be a terrible one. Terrible in the deepest sense, as in full of terror, a terror that is blinding, a terror that drives one to feel and cause all manner of pain rather than acknowledge its original source. At least, that’s how I understand myself, back when I was like that. It left big and deep scars on me, ones that mark me to this day.
Of course, perhaps that’s just the privilege talking. I can’t tell you what the right answer is - all I know is where I’ve been and what I’ve done to get out. On the other side of righteous clarity comes ambiguity - I have no right to tell others what the truth is, which means I have to make peace with living alongside others who feel that they have that right. Perhaps they do. For me, putting down the right to be against people gave me a new right, even a new duty - the ability, finally, to actually be happy.
Max Jackson is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.