What the left has to learn from cults

Published on 2024-01-14

A few leading clarifications:

  • The word "cult" and the fact that it has such a negative connotation makes it a great tool to villainize people for having alternative religious beliefs
  • Cults, in the usual sense, are really dangerous organizations that hurt lots of people
  • I am, in fact, going to be talking about the kind of cult that hurts a lot of people. Bare with me

I want to critique what I may dare to call the leftist user experience.

There's this guy named Ian Danskin who runs a YouTube channel I follow called Innuendo Studios that does a series called "The Alt Right Playbook," where he tries to dissect the way the right does rhetoric online, particularly in a post-Gamergate era.

About four years ago he did a talk for Solidarity Lowell:

Endnote 4: How the Alt-Right is Like an Abusive Relationship (live)

There's a lot to be said about how the alt-right is like an abusive relationship, but what interested me a lot more about his talk is if you take away the "isolation, engulfment and pain," then cults don't sound all that bad. In fact, it is the function of a cult to provide desperate people with a community they have otherwise been deprived of.

Those are generally the targets of cults: desperate people. And those seem to be the targets of the alt-right as well: lonely, often but not always white, often but not always male people who are suffering under late capitalism and whose problems could plausibly be scapegoated as minorities.

The goal of alt-right recruiters is to sell these suffering people a vision of the future; to give them hope that things can get better.

Once they're sold, you involve them in a community. You give them friends. You give them something to do--some way to contribute to the mission.

Of course, the "something to do" here is usually harassing marginalized women on the internet. These aren't good people, and we really shouldn't be giving them much sympathy. And, for what it's worth, the next steps are "isolation, engulfment and pain," so the story does not have a good ending, but perhaps strangely, I find the first part of this process very enticing, and on the face of it, it seems even stranger that it's not something we do at all on the left in my experience.

On the left, it seems there are people and there are actions. People see a post on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter about an action, and they go to participate. Who's behind the action is usually not clear--maybe it's some organization you've never heard of before. You do the action and then you go home. There is no community, there are no friends, and afterwards it seems there's nothing to do but wait until some other nebulous person takes it upon themselves to organize another action.

I feel like being a leftist could be a really fulfilling experience, but it usually isn't.

Having said all this, I'm realizing that I do know just enough history to have a pretty convincing argument for why this is the case: we did have those communities once upon a time, but then the CIA got really good at dismantling them. The lead example that comes to mind is the Black Panthers. So maybe the reason why being a leftist today feels so isolating to me is that there is this shared, generational trauma that keeps us from forming communities with strong foundations.

Where I live, we have leftist "groups," but we don't really have leftist "communities"--particularly, not ones seriously interested in outreach. For example, a while back I met a really cool person who was involved in an action to publicly humiliate a few companies for their involvement in violating the sovereignty of the Wet'suwet'en people. Afterwards, they invited me to their online space. It's hard to say how much of this is just me being a socially anxious person, but after getting there, I never really felt like I was needed. I spent the next few months feeling like I was eavesdropping on a private conversation between friends. It was never clear to me how I could get involved. It still isn't.

Besides, you know, showing up to actions and then leaving. There is value in that, surely, but that's not how you build a reliable base of support.

I've had a similar experience trying to interact with most leftist groups I've encountered in life. They always feel more like an insular clique than a public community.

Here's how I can imagine building a reliable base of support:

  • Sell people on a vision of a better future. This one's easy, because everyone within a rounding error knows the world sucks and that it'd be better if the government wasn't beating the shit out of minorities for no reason.
  • Establish rituals and involve those people in them. Say, having weekly meetings. I think book clubs are awesome at this sort of thing, because books are cool and everyone has an opinion on them. This is how you give people community and friendship.
  • Finally, take the time to understand what each individual has to contribute and encourage them to get involved.

That's it.

If the left were a cult, the next steps would be "isolation, engulfment and pain," but we obviously don't need that. That's why the left is not a cult. Cults are as violent as they are because they need abuse to hold themselves together. On the left, we're literally talking about protecting your friends from getting the shit beaten out of them by the government for no reason. You don't need to abuse friends to get them to protect friends from abusers; friends stand up for one another.

The real question, then, is would a leftist community like this get the Black Panthers treatment from the CIA?

To this, I think I have two open questions in return. First, how centralized is this model really? And second, should we let the CIA keep us from making friends?

I don't think this model needs to be centralized at all. I don't even think we need to abandon the idea that we should be organizing around spontaneous acts of solidarity. I just feel like we could get a lot more value individually out of making a serious effort to engage ourselves and others in a community.

It's hard though, I realize. It's hard to trust people in a world where everyone seems to hate you. But I can't escape the feeling that without community we have nothing.

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