The Left Has Turned Into a Guild Hall

Three years after I took my bachelor’s degree in classics into what was at that point the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, many of my college classmates joined the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. A central criticism of Occupy was that it had unclear goals. As a response, one of my classmates drew a diagram. It had something like forty circles with words and phrases in them—“white supremacy, “the carceral state,” “environmental collapse,” things like that—and arrows connecting them. This is what it’s about, the image was meant to say. All of this. And I think it also meant: To understand what it’s about, you have to understand all of this.

I was thinking about this old chart as I watched a video of a few New York protesters berating a group of police officers for their lack of education. “You guys go to clown college for twenty-six weeks,” one says in the video, and another cuts in, “You know, a hairdresser has to go to school for longer than you do. Half of you don’t even have a college education . . . You can’t even read a fucking history book . . . You want to sit here and tell me that you’re educated enough to make demands about shit you know nothing about.”

The sense in which it’s not an activist’s job to educate you is the sense in which your education serves to enter you into a certain kind of guild.

The word “educated” is a strange one. In this usage it seems to be halfway between “aware” and “trained.” The raising of awareness is, of course, a traditional activist goal. Being trained, on the other hand, provides a professional credential. The common online refrain “It’s not my job to educate you” has come under fire based on the first sense of the term. If one is organizing for a political goal, it is in fact one’s “job” to make others aware of the real-world conditions that motivate their organizing.

We can understand the phrase better by thinking of the second meaning. The sense in which it’s not an activist’s job to educate you is the sense in which your education serves to enter you into a certain kind of guild. Your ability to understand what the activist is saying serves your interests, not the activist’s, because it involves tools that are useful for social and professional advancement. This explains why colleges have begun rescinding students’ acceptances for things they say on Snapchat: such students clearly aren’t fit to be “educated” at all, if these things made their way to administrators.

Now most guilds are limited in their scopes of activity. Lawyers may try to persuade people that everyone should have a lawyer; doctors may try to persuade people that everyone should have a doctor. But lawyers never try to persuade companies that every employee should be a lawyer, and doctors never try to persuade companies that every employee should be a doctor. The guild we’re considering here—let’s just call it “the guild” from hereon—does. It says that everyone should be in the guild.

The guild says that in virtually any job, the better you understand the sort of diagram my old classmate drew, the better you’ll do that job. If you’re a programmer, it’ll help you see the biases of the algorithms you create. If you’re a professor, it’ll help you know who to cite and who to put on your syllabi. If you’re in marketing, it’ll help you avoid offensive missteps in your advertisements. And so on. Any job is a job for the guild.

Of course, there are also what we might call “core” jobs in the guild. The people holding these jobs are the ones who usually are “educating” people: certain kinds of college professors, for instance, and absolutely certain kinds of college administrators, as well as the diversity consultants who run corporate sensitivity trainings and campus microaggression workshops and so on, and perhaps some journalists, and maybe the increasingly didactic comedians and talk-show writers who use their public profiles to lay out “woke” talking points.

The demands of a social justice movement often centrally feature the provision of new jobs for the guild. A campus group, for instance, might demand that the school require students to go through expensive diversity trainings or that the school hire a psychiatrist specializing in issues of racial or gender identity, a supplementary dean of inclusion, a set of professors who research and teach critical race theory, and so on. A movement against police brutality might demand that police departments undergo expensive, ineffective implicit bias trainings or that police officers be replaced by social workers with the right kinds of master’s degrees—of course in addition to other, more noble demands. This is why women and minority hires in academia complain of being “ghettoized” into certain topics.

The recent Black Lives Matter protests have, for instance, led Stanford University to establish a new Center for Racial Justice and a line of ten professorships in “Impacts of Race in America.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post is developing a “Managing Editor for Diversity and Inclusion” job, as well as a new set of writer positions all framed around items like “race and identity,” “multicultural society,” “white nationalism” (for a national security writer), “changing demographic[s]” (for a style writer), “communities of color” (for a climate writer), and “the impact of structural and interpersonal racism on health and the sociology and psychology of racism and its impacts” (for a science writer).

The guild’s existence and fervor probably traces back to the twin phenomena of the ailing economy and what Peter Turchin calls “elite overproduction.” (Actually, this is a bit of a misappropriation, since Turchin defines “elite” very narrowly—but the phrase is suggestive beyond its intended use.) Elite overproduction is exactly what it sounds like: there are more “elites” produced by the relevant societal mechanisms, like “education,” than there are positions that they can fill. One practice that has emerged from the reality of elite overproduction is what’s come to be known as “cancellation.” Because labor is in high supply and jobs are in high demand, there is always a huge glut of guild members who aren’t employed to their satisfaction, and at the same time, no employer is irreparably harmed by the loss by cancellation of any particular employee. Because any job can be a guild job, and cancellations often occur for reasons only guild members are really able to explain, no cancellation can ever harm the guild, even though guild members themselves are not immune to cancellation (in fact, they may be more vulnerable to it).

When someone is under threat of cancellation, they craft an apology. This is not to showcase their true beliefs. It is a last-ditch attempt to show that they can create guild-worthy documents and utterances.

Standards for what is acceptable conduct and what is cancellable evolve constantly. This too is in line with what we expect in a guild rather than in, say, an ideology, a religion, an ethical system, or any of the other things that the guild has been proposed to be. Other professionals—doctors, lawyers, accountants—must always keep up to date on the state of the art in their fields. Why not members of the guild? The constant changes only increase the necessity and prestige of the “educators” of the guild.

Of course, the guild does inspire some kinds of beliefs—a guildy conscience, as it were. But it is not one’s beliefs that determine whether one qualifies for a guild job. It is the ability to shape one’s words and actions into works of the guild. When someone is under threat of cancellation, they craft an apology. This is not to showcase their true beliefs. Nor is it, as we sometimes say, a kind of “struggle session,” or a ritual meant to humiliate the canceled and show their newfound obedience. At least not from the perspective of the canceled. From their perspective, it is a last-ditch attempt to show that they can create guild-worthy documents and utterances—that they speak as a guild member does. So while there is a sense in which a “cancellation” is a kind of excommunication, there is also a sense in which it is a kind of disbarment. You’ll never work in this town again, the canceled person hears.

The reality of the guild demonstrates the vacuity of certain criticisms of, for instance, campus culture, too. A certain kind of critic of contemporary student activists says: “They’re going to learn real quick that this doesn’t fly when they get to the real world. They’ll regret wasting their education on this stuff.” But the guild is the real world. Cancellation is the real world. Ostracism from coworkers, friends, family, and potential romantic partners is the real world. The stakes are your ability to make a livelihood and your ability to have a life. And the successes of the guild are real. An intelligent person can pick up the fundamentals of computer programming in a summer either on their own or from a “coding boot camp.” But the operation of the guild is social and must be observed and felt socially to really be understood—ideally in the opportune inclusions and petty exclusions of a prestigious liberal arts college or an Ivy League university.

What’s next for the guild? Well, I assume it shall continue to recruit members for the rest of my lifetime, at the very least, regimenting the way they speak and act, especially in public and especially on social media, rewarding the most vicious among them and making everything in the world just the same as everything else. As a college education on the one hand grows more and more to be guild training and nothing else and on the other hand becomes more and more a prerequisite for any kind of work in at least the United States, a career, and even a job, will begin to look not like an obvious part of the life of a normal person but instead like a prize for those who behave “ethically” enough, which is to say who attune their behavior most reliably to the dictates of the guild, to avoid public opprobrium framed in guild vocabulary. It is perhaps no coincidence that the idea of the middle-class life as a life of great privilege accompanies a situation of ever-increasing uncertainty for those who seek to have one. At the same time, as time passes, the sorts of things one needs to do and say to maintain one’s good standing with the guild will continue to change, in an organic process of weeding out those who cannot keep up and those who are aging out of the appropriate social milieus. This, of course, will as always be framed as a challenge to some distant oppressive power, but will in fact be only a reiteration of it.

I for one cannot join the guild. It is not to my taste, it is not within my abilities, and I have said too much by this point in my life anyhow, and in the wrong way. Should you? Every day I see people who I know share my feelings about the guild, or even people who privately act in some outrageous ways and express some outrageous views, nevertheless satisfy its requirements on behavior very publicly and with flying colors. I speak to younger people, college students and recent graduates, who say they wish they had spent less time in school studying, say, mathematics or ancient languages and more time observing and emulating the guild-ridden social dynamics among their most outspoken peers. What I would love is to be able to say something like: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Don’t give in. Follow your heart. Do what’s right. But that’s what many of the members of the guild want you to do, too. More for them, if you do; more for them. I don’t know what’s best.