Joe Rogan, Bernie Sanders, and the False Spectre of the Red-Brown


I write about American electoral politics as often as I write about American football or Hollywood celebrities. Which is to say not at all, as all three subjects are in my mind mere spectacle constructed only to distract us from the dolorous pain of living in capitalist societies.

That said, the howls of disgust and righteous indignation regarding “problematic podcaster” Joe Rogan’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders—and said candidate’s tepid acceptance of that endorsement—are a good starting place to discuss a much more significant political problem I’ve avoided addressing for years now. That problem? The false spectre of the “Red-Brown.”

For those of you who, like me, don’t really follow the electoral spectacle, I’ll give you a little background. Joe Rogan is a jockish white dude podcaster who interviews “edgy” people and says some pretty stupid shit. In fact, he’s the “edgelord” extraordinaire of American alternative media. And oh, since I had to have that term explained to me and maybe you do too, “edgelord” isn’t when you’re really good at masturbating just to the point of orgasm and then stopping repeatingly, but is when you make an identity for yourself of being someone who says shocking, “edgy” things just for reactions.

Anyway, Joe Rogan has interviewed (hosted) fascist-aligned people who believe we need to depopulate the earth and round up trans people and Muslims, along with many other boring guests. And he says racist stuff occasionally, and holds some stupid ideas that we generally would identify as just a few steps (or a drunken stumble) from far-right, fascist ideology. And so people, especially those who’ve created careers for themselves as standing up for people with oppressed identities (the Human Rights Campaign, for example, who’s also thrown their lot in with corporate media conglomerates), are quite livid. So are, especially, Democratic Party establishment types, who are quite appalled at the idea a candidate with a left-leaning platform (Sander’s barely a socialist by European standards, but for America he’s practically Che Guevera) being able to attract support from “the other side.”

Now, as I said, American electoral politics is all a spectacle. But it also needs to be said that what just happened with this endorsement is something so unimaginable to my jaded anarchist mind that I’ve vowed to register to vote if Bernie Sanders somehow survives the primaries. Because while it’s all a spectacle, a minor glimpse of what might finally one day be possible on the American “left” just appeared in all that otherwise illusory political posturing.

That is this: a mildly leftist (and yet much more to the left than anyone else proffered by the American political machine) politician just proved it’s possible to convince the most politically-neglected segment (by the “left”) of American society to even slightly for a moment consider the possibility of having a tiny fraction of a fragment of a sliver of socialism. And yeah—I’m talking about lower-class white men.

See, judging by all the demographic polls tracking Bernie Sanders’ support, he’s already convinced poor Black, poor trans, poor women, and poor disabled people that socialism might be a nice idea. Or, actually, let me restate that, because I’m pretty sure all those people daily live all the proof they’d need to convince them that socialized health care and less student debt might be a good thing. That is, Sanders doesn’t need to convince them of anything except that he’d try to enact those things for them.

But lower-class whites? That’s a different matter completely. American capitalism has always relied on an ever-expanding base of less-educated “working-class” whites that can be convinced to vote against every single one of their interests and instead on “morality” issues inculcated into their minds through mass media, evangelical churches, and whatever idiotic things their drinking buddies say. For them, socialism means satanism, lazy Black mothers pumping out children to get welfare, immigrants stealing their Wal-Mart jobs, and their children exposed to live homosexual fisting demonstrations in their second-grade classrooms.

The reason for this idiocy has just as much to do with the urban and “elitist” disgust for them by actual leftists as it does all that capitalist and Christian propaganda. Because leftists don’t like them—honestly, seriously, deeply don’t like them—because all they can think about is how you can’t find good cold-brew coffee in an Oklahoma gas station and how one time they got laughed at by one of those guys in middle school gym class.

I’m oversimplifying, but not really.

The point is that the propaganda goes both ways. Queer kids like me learned to fear “those guys” and in response build an identity in opposition to everything I was told they stood for, telling myself that I was somehow better than all of them because I had superior thoughts and hated country music. Besides, “those guys” would beat me up if they ever got a chance, right?

Well, maybe. But also the older I got, the more I realised most of them were just as stupid as I was, by which I mean they were equally subject to the same delusions and fears that I was. While I thought myself better than them because I’d never used an electric drill or gone to a football game, they thought themselves better than me because they’d never read Slavoj Žižek or had a cock in their ass.

And that mention of Žižek brings me to the larger point here, which is that American leftists continuously make certain that there will never be any viable anti-capitalist movement in the United States. A year after Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic Party’s nomination as their presidential candidate to Hillary Clinton, and a year after Hillary Clinton showed us all that capitalism sugar-coated with identity politics couldn’t defeat even the most idiotic presidential candidate the world has ever seen, Žižek wrote an op-ed suggesting that Bernie supporters and alt-right supporters should unite against capitalism.

The howls at Rogan’s endorsement of Sanders and the howls against Žižek’s apparently absurd statement sound awfully familiar. Of course, Žižek was arguing something much more complex than his provocative headline suggested (Žižek’s pretty much the leftist “edgelord” supreme.) His assertion was that class struggle in American politics couldn’t be defined by Democrats versus Republicans (because c’mon, they’re both pro-capitalist parties), but rather a struggle within each party. The anti-capitalist drive of Sanders’ supporters and the anti-elitist drive of those who fell for the propaganda of the alt-right are a lot closer to each other than either of those positions are to the capitalists who actually fund those parties and the politicians who enact their will.

This probably sounds like “horseshoe theory” to you, the idea that the farther away you get from the supposed “moderate” political center, the more your political ideas resemble the opposite side of the spectrum. That is, “horseshoe theory” claims that the farther left you go, the closer you get to the far right.

This shitty theory is the basis for the American leftist fear of a new “Red-Brown” alliance. This idea originates in the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler towards the beginning of World War II, a political treaty that was a huge slap in the face to the Western capitalist powers like France and the United Kingdom, as well as all the smaller countries the Nazis quickly conquered. The Soviet Union’s non-involvement in the war early on, however, is also usually seen as the only way the USSR was able to later defeat Hitler, as their economy was still suffering from the problems of communist transition and the massive loss of life from WWI.

And while I’m no fan of Stalin or the Soviet Union, the fact that anyway almost 17 million Russians died during that war (versus Germany’s 9 million, or the combined 1 million of French and British soldiers) probably proves they regardless “did their part” to stop the Nazis.

The modern fear of a Red-Brown alliance is on even shakier ground than any who would suggest the commies were pals with the fascists back then. Instead of being able to cite a similar political treaty, Red-Brown theory relies heavily on tracing ideological similarities between individual thinkers, and assumes that these similarities mean agreement. Or if those individuals ever interact or concede the other side’s point on one or two matters, suddenly it’s Stalin and Hitler all over again.

There’s a much larger problem here, which is that the categories of “left” and “right” are only that: categories. And like gender and race, they’re constructed categories that, while possessing political and meaning power over human interactions, are not pristine symbol sets.

“Left” and “Right” are both terms originally used to describe the location politicians were sitting in during French parliamentary discussions about whether or not the monarchy should exist, with “leftists” being more for a Republic and “rightists” being more for the ancien regime. From that short period of French history we’ve then constructed elaborate political theories and classifications that don’t always apply well and anyway are completely relative. For example, what is considered “left” in the United States is often more accurately classified as “centre” or even “right” in Europe: Hillary Clinton, for instance, held political positions further to the right of Emmanuel Macron in France, who was a “centrist.”

These aren’t universal categories, and they aren’t pristine symbol sets. By this last part I mean that what many of us consider symbolic and unique to leftism isn’t either of those things. For instance, nationalized health care in the United States is seen as a “leftist” position. But in France and Germany both, it’s a position both the right and the left agree on. As a matter of fact, it’s actually only the political “center” in both countries who argue for dismantling it or loosening worker protections.

Switching over to the United States again, we can see that this strange political “center” acts in the same way. The moderate parts of the Democratic and the Republican parties both fight hard against universal health care, increased minimum wage and other worker protections, and also against changes to the student debt system. They also both tend to be heavy federalists, by which I mean that they constantly enact policies to concentrate more power in the federal government away from state, county, city, and neighborhood influence, taking away any hope of direct democracy.

So while the “left” and the “right” in the United States is radically different from what those terms mean in Europe, the center in all these countries argues the same thing: more and stronger government, less and weaker local say in political decisions, and always and forever more capitalism.

Both horseshoe theory and the fear of a “Red-Brown” alliance, then, cover over a truth quite uncomfortable for everyone. It’s the center that’s dealing all the cards, and whether we sit on the left or the right of that dealer, the game’s rigged against us. More so, the dealer is specifically playing both sides against each other, pumping out relentless propaganda to make sure that the farther in one direction we go from the center, the more we buy into the idea that the other direction wants to kill us.

Now, before you start howling too, yes: there are far-right people who want trans and Black and queer and disabled and Muslim people dead. Fortunately, though, they’ve yet to attain the same amount of political power that the capitalist center has already used to make that happen. Because while hate crimes are horrific and should be fought at every turn, no white supremacist has yet managed to kill as many Muslims in the Middle East as the US government has, or as many Black people as US police officers have, or as many poor queer, disabled, and trans people as American capitalism has.

And as much as we hate to admit it with every fibre of our being, the only way to stop capitalism would be for the lower classes who currently hate and fear each other to unite against the government and the rich. That means white people too, and not just the woke whites drinking pour-overs while reading Judith Butler in Portland cafes after they’ve dropped off their dog at his yoga class, but also the whites listening to idiots like Joe Rogan and, yes, even the idiot whites who bought into all the alt-right propaganda.

To get those whites to work with the rest of us, we’d need to convince them that our common enemy is the capitalists and the government, not each other. And unfortunately, every attempt anyone will make to do so will elicit howls that we’ve all gone “Red-Brown” or that we’re proving the horseshoe theory. Any leftist who tries to do that work will become suspect—perhaps they’re working with Russia, or have gone crypto-fascist—but we shouldn’t let that stop us.

Because I’ve never let that stop me. According to two of the former leaders of an anti-fascist Heathen organization last year, I’ve supposedly gone “Red-Brown” because I argued we shouldn’t throw away the runes just because fascists co-opt them. Elsewhere I’ve been accused of being a white nationalist because I think land is important to human survival, or an eco-fascist because I think we could use a little less digital technology in our lives.

In these cases, and in I suspect almost every other such accusation elsewhere, the problem is again that we assume there’s a pristine symbol set called “leftism.” That every political position is either right-wing or left-wing, unique only to one ideology. The faddish terror of “eco-fascism” shows this particularly, with people utterly panicked that people with “right-wing” ideologies might also have noticed the biosphere is being destroyed and we’re all gonna run out of food when the droughts and floods increase. What differs between those two constructed tendencies, however, is what to do about it, with some far-right people killing innocent people in a Wal-Mart or a mosque rather than killing the CEOs of Exxon and BP.

It should be pretty obvious their solution is shit and anyway doesn’t actually help the environment. Neither, unfortunately, do most of the proposed “leftist” solutions, many of which get so watered down because we’re terrified people on the “other side” will never take us seriously.

But again, that’s why this Joe Rogan endorsement is wild. A bunch of “idiots on that other side” are suddenly starting to take socialism seriously, enough at least to consider it. And this pulls people away from the propaganda of the capitalist center and a little closer to the Black and trans and disabled and queer people they’ve been told to hate their entire lives. And if even Sanders’ pale and weak version of socialism can somehow start to trump racism as a political motivation, what might we be able to accomplish if we offered something stronger?

I don’t think we can afford not trying to find out.


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