What do you do when a friend reveals a curious, obsessive behavior? Jonathan Chait is not my friend, but lately I’ve become worried for the New York magazine columnist, if only because he’s taken to writing the same piece repeatedly. Just yesterday (with “Oh, Good, It’s 2016 and We’re Arguing About Whether Marxism Works”), Chait threw his second haymaker at Marxism in a week. Stunned, maybe, from counterpunches on Twitter, he had forgotten about his first attempt — “Reminder: Liberalism Is Working, and Marxism Has Always Failed” — even though its title suggests it was prompted by a calendar alert.
It’s helpful, I think, to read the title of this “news flash” about Marxism in the voice of Donald Trump (“Breaking news! You’re a loser!”), if only because it’s reflective of a shared rhetorical élan. Even though he confesses that Bernie Sanders’ campaign is not informed by Marxism, Chait feels the need to squash the bug; even though the “far left” “has no immediate prospects of enacting its program democratically,” he still provides an unfriendly reminder. After explaining at length why this first-year thesis on Marxism isn’t relevant, Chait crowbars it in anyway:
It is on politics, not economics, where the influence of Marxist ideas has been most keenly felt. Enough time has passed since the demise of the Soviet Union to allow Marxist models to thrive without answering for communist regimes. In his fascinating profile of Jacobin, Dylan Matthews notes, “The magazine is not going to defend Stalin’s collectivizations or Mao’s Great Leap Forward or really any other aspect of ‘actually existing communism.’” But the fact that every communist country in world history quickly turned into a repressive nightmare is kind of important.
It’s also “kind of important” to note, when dealing with Chait, that the essay is not on the page; it exists between the paragraphs. The threefold leap from Sanders’ socialism to Marxism to communist “repressive nightmare” is Olympic; it’s also disturbingly Cold War and red-baiting — even a casual observer knows that Marxism and its variegations inform a range of political orientations, including mainstream European party politics. But there is no need to bring Chait up to speed on political writing since Darkness at Noon. The source of his obsession isn’t Marxism. It’s Millennialism.
If you want an idea of what is prompting Chait’s acrobatic take on Marxism, you should look to the magazine he cites in the above paragraph. A lucid, well-designed, sometimes controversial organ of the Marxist left, Jacobin is one example of millennial socialism that could be described as “flourishing” during the current election cycle, which is another way of saying that it has appealed, with many well-placed pieces, to the leftist spirit of millennials.
But it’s not so much the content of Jacobin or millennial leftism that has Chait worried; this much is obvious, for he shows not even a glancing familiarity with its arguments. It’s instead the semiotic positioning of millennial socialism that has his stomach in knots. And this is why you can’t trust Chait on what he tellingly calls “the illiberal left,” because he doesn’t know or care about the 21st-century left: his frame of reference is plainly too small. He seems to have learned about Jacobin, which has delivered more or less the same arguments since 2011, from a 2016 feature on Vox. No, he doesn’t know a thing about contemporary left discourse or its participants, but now, as if discovering a race of mole people living underneath his house, he knows “they exist.”
Here is where the irony of Chait is at once thin and profound, boring and spectacular. Chait’s brand of liberalism is beset on all sides by real opponents (and not the adversaries he invents): Trumpism, actual Marxism, neoconservativism, Sanders’ socialism, black radicalism. But its most vicious enemy is also its best friend (itself!): neoliberalism. And although Chait wants you to believe that neoliberalism is an invention of wayward Marxist critique, he knows better. It’s part of the reason he’s acting so weird.
Reading Chait’s pieces on Marxism, you’d think that we’re currently thriving in a Pax Obama without soaring income inequality or historically second-place inmate levels (he loves to non sequitur about the Soviet gulag). In Chait’s mind, we live under the sign of an unrestricted civic discourse, one where petty claims for “equality” and “solidarity” always take a backseat to an all-encompassing “freedom” (an Ur-”good” that is somehow dependent on nothing). But that’s only Chait in theory; in practice he is as beholden to the neoliberal marketplace as anyone else. And the neoliberal marketplace, which is expert at transforming identity claims into money, desperately wants to assimilate millennialism wholesale. It’s why we’ve seen the commentary on millennialism become a meta-commentary.
The only problem is that millennials are disproportionately socialist. (As Chait himself points out, they “respond to it favorably.”) This, of course, puts neoliberalism in a bind: how does it absorb its opposite? And it gives Chait anxiety. To stay relevant, he needs to appeal to millennials, but he can’t — not without greatly expanding (and deepening) his frame of reference. He’d rather shadowbox with the reds.
And it’s unfortunate. The question of whether millennials will retain their leftism going forward is one of the most important queries facing American politics today. But you won’t find the answer in Chait’s weird commentaries on Marxism. You’ll have to look elsewhere.