Proud and Paltry: The Left’s Ontology Problem


One of the most fatuous of prevalent left-wing norms is the idea that one should not express thoughts about issues that do not directly affect one. Such a norm leads to immediate insularity and imminent implosion. The correct principle should be that one should not be granted the authority to enact policies about issues that do not directly affect one except through the democratic representation of those directly affected; anything further than that grants too much authority in guiding our affairs to solipsism. So, that said, I have thoughts to add to the bedlam over the Pride flag, though I am a man—even if brown—as straight and cis as a fiddlestick.

Much has already been made already about whether or not the two additional stripes (black and brown) should have been added. Briefly, I share the critical sentiment: Given the fairly universal values (or so you would think) already represented by the colors on the various iterations of the flag, the addition of two colors to emphasize racial inclusivity seems extraneous, incongruent and bizarre: “Life! Spirit! Healing! Sunlight! Brown People! Black People!” … Enough said about that, hopefully.

Rather, I find the phenomenon so very interesting because it perfectly showcases the ontological limitations of identity politics, which I have so far been able to explain only in the abstract:

The problem, of which the flag is the best manifestation, is that left-wing politics is becoming increasingly dependent on accounting for or upholding what can be positively affirmed and represented (as opposed to something being defined by a state of negation or unrepresentability or not-yet-being; think of it in the sense of a photographic negative too, on top of the “DC movies suck” kind of negative; “not,” as well as “bad”). Leftism (as prevalent) is about advocating as/for those who have been agreed upon as facing some or the other oppression. This advocacy isn’t just regarding the contingent condition of oppression, though, it isn’t merely social advocacy; it is about the identity in its entirety, to a notional level, so as to fortify the defenses against said condition. In other (hopefully simpler) words, to discourage bad things being done to oppressed peoples, rather than merely saying that one shouldn’t do bad things to people, in the abstract, regardless of identity, a mythos (even if not solid philosophical framework) is created around an identity to celebrate it. The underlying sentiment is – “<insert oppressed group> are good, not bad! Also it is good to be <insert oppressed group>, not bad! <insert oppressed group> should be cherished because they are that, not despite or regardless of it” At the most abstract, this kind of leftist ethos posits and affirms a particular kind of being.

But what about being that cannot, even by the most bewildering discursive gymnastics, be celebrated? Those whose being is in negativity? You can celebrate race, for example—you can say, “the thing about brown people to be upheld is their very brownness, that should be a matter of pride!”—but would you say, “the thing about poor people to be upheld is their very poverty, that should be a matter of pride?” Even religious traditions don’t uphold poor people because of poverty itself, but because of the piety and spiritual purity that condition is supposed to foster. How can you put poverty on a Pride flag? “Oh no, austerity has thoroughly decimated you and your family hasn’t it; you are now so beautiful and inspiring, let us hallow you with a stripe…”

Races are easy of course. You can even create symbolic associations between femininity and pink and re/claim that as a symbol of pride and strength. But what symbolic associations are you going to create for something that is defined by negativity—most prominently, labor under a political economic system in which people are institutionally dispossessed of the land and the engines and the servers? Labor in this condition cannot be defined in positive terms, it is defined by not having and becoming-other, creating-other, by the process and in the product that is not what conducts the process. How can you represent that? It may not be impossible, but it will be difficult. But politics, which depends on simplicity, at least in the open and in “the streets,” will not represent such things. Can’t spin a cool image out of being poor? Too hard to frame something or someone as glossy enough to offer a Pepsi to a cop? Your own racially woke liberal conscience prohibiting you from marketing poverty as exotic and ethnic? Well to hell with it then, let them die.

Which is of course what is happening. Look at Pride itself. In San Francisco, among its “grand” and “major” sponsors are BlueShield and Kaiser Permanante, companies which would not have the clout and resources to sponsor events of this scale in a properly civilized and sensible society, which would have a healthcare system in service of human life, rather than the bottom lines of the insurance cartel. Among its “associates” are the platform powers (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Lyft, etc.) most responsible for fostering homelessness in the city. Among its “advocates” are Wells Fargo and Chase, for whom homelessness has been a direct source of revenue. But all that is at least superficial or simplistic. A rejection of Pride due to such associations would partially be symbolic; the logic of x-washing is totalizing, one cannot help but accede to it even in attempting to escape from it.

More fundamentally, though, the point is the paucity of representation as an exhaustive political strategy. It may be convenient and easy, but it will exclude so much of what it is to be a subject in the world, since there is so much more to existing as a subject than mere being that can be affirmed, represented, flattened onto a fabric and worn. It is not just about the problems that come up (as with poverty) when you can’t say, “You ARE ‘x’, that’s great, let’s celebrate that!” Of course, this defiance of the basic logic of the era and populace—the wholesale representation and curation of reality—is the fundamental reason the very mention of class politics draws such a visceral and resentful reaction from so many liberals and leftists today. But it goes beyond class and poverty, as grave as those matters are. It’s also that forms of existence that we can’t yet represent are precluded when politics and discourses of power proceed exclusively on the basis of forms of existence that already exist. We can explore nothing more. It inhibits us from becoming something else, locks us into identities and forms of being that this POC at least would find pretty boring to define himself primarily by for the rest of his life.

Real freedom—if at all the left still cares about that—lies not in being able to exist as something fixed, but in not being what one currently is. Insofar as identity politics gives people currently being dominated the option to not be dominated, it’s doing good. Regrettably, though, the logic by which it fights for things is extending across the entire terrain of politics. Left politics is increasingly being cordoned off to only those causes in which one can posit and celebrate the existence of something. It’s the Instagrammization of politics, completely in sync with the ethic and technologies of late-but-never-leaving capitalism, an ethos that plays perfectly into the well-being of the dominant order: from its perpetuation and profit based on evermore images and information, to the containment of our being within limited forms that it is accustomed to tending as docile workers and consumers.

We need to think about forms of being that can’t neatly be represented on a flag. Flags are representations of peoples or ideals. It would be a waste of reality and its potentials if we want our existence to lie primarily in representing ourselves as what we already are, rather than lying in what we yet are not, in what could outlive our corporeal forms, our skin and our genitals, in things we create and augment the world with, in being thus immanent to the world itself.

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