‘Exit’ and the Left

In the past few decades Albert O. Hirschman’s seminal text, Exit, Voice and Loyalty has risen to prominence in certain circles. Libertarians, liberals, and reactionaries have all found value in the ideas of Hirschman, especially as they relate to the promises of the IT revolution. Unfortunately the left has failed to really grapple with this text, both because of its association with liberal capitalism, and many who cite the text tend to be considerably privileged. For example, Patri Friedman’s claim that ”we think that free exit is so important that we’ve called it the only Universal Human Right” — spoken in the context of Silicon Valley billionaires who want to build independent “libertarian” nation states — rings just a little hollow. Much like freedom of the press centuries earlier, the freedom to build your own nation-state is nice… if you can afford it.

However just because such arguments have been adopted by those whose idea of freedom is extremely shallow does not invalidate them. In fact I would argue that many leftist goals and critiques can be framed in terms of exit. For example Das Kapital is arguably an exploration of what happens when workers do not have meaningful exit. Similarly much of feminism can be seen as a struggle for providing women with exit. While the leftist project as whole cannot be described entirely through the lens of exit, to ignore it is to leave an essential tool behind.

But if exit aligns with many left wing goals, then why has the left traditionally ignored exit? Well for one thing, it hasn’t. Left wing attempts to build dual power have existed all throughout history. In the 19th century, socialists built serious working class bottom-up welfare systems that gave people some ability to exit from capital (which were then deliberately coopted with the emergence of the welfare state). But the dynamics of struggle (mainly focused around mass movements) and the superiority of the centralized industrial mode of production made it so that collectivization and hierarchy was essential. In such a context exit is either primitivist localism or meaningless strikes against structures that can easily absorb them. Add to that the fact intellectuals that helped guide such movements were tempted by the power they’d gain were they ever in charge of the masses and you can see why exit became a liability.

But the context has shifted dramatically since then. In the 21st century, capitalism functions largely not through control over productivity machinery but instead via artificial scarcities maintained by force. The dynamics at play are totally different from the 19th century when the asymmetries that defined the conflict left mass struggle as the most effective tool of the oppressed. Technological progress is enabling varying degrees of self-sufficiency, the limits of which will only be found through empirical attempts at building counter-economic systems.

In world in which power reproduces itself not on forcing workers into dramatically uneven contracts and extorting labor from them, but instead more and more through capturing rents and network externalities. Two major approaches to attack open up. The intangibles that create artificial scarcity can be liberated by talented individuals. Similarly material exit means the option for disconnect from, or at the very least a renegotiation between those subordinated and those with power.

Or, as Negri and Hardt put it in Multitude:

In politics as in economics, one weapon that is constantly at the disposals of the ruled … is the threat to refuse their position of servitude and subtract themselves from the relationship. This act of refusing the relationship with the sovereign is a kind of exodus, fleeing the forces of oppression, servitude and persecution in search of freedom. … Without the active participation of the the subordinated, sovereignty crumbles.

As such, despite all the noise that libertarians and reactionaries make about exit, it is arguably the causes the left champions that stand to benefit the most from expanding the option of meaningful exit. Any such options are not just good for elevating the stress of survival but also allows for spaces from which citizen engineering/science can take place or the production of culture (there’s an entire essay to be written on how a mass cultural revolution that’ll make the 60s look like the 00s could be unleashed if we had robust basic needs infrastructure for the many artists/academics living in precarity today). In which a light exit is not a primitivist retreat, but instead a way to reshape the terrain on which we struggle.

Finally the left should claim the notion of exit because with so many not only investigating it, but actively trying to realize it through political or technological means, we need analysis on its failure modes. In a complex technological world in which externalities and power dynamics are something that we can’t easily extract ourselves exit alone will quickly run into its limits. The notion that technology can get us all the way without seriously addressing culture or ethics is absurd (although certainly technology can force conversations or shift culture/ethics). Promoting exit in such a fashion leads to strategic and tactical myopia similar to strains of Marxism with their focus on cataclysmic collapse/revolution. Our problems will not be solved with one weird trick that lets us hide from the eyes of our oppressors and escape their arms but rather through a concerted struggle that is as complex as the world itself.

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