The cruelty is the point

It’s a common refrain on social media. Someone will link to a story of a Republican lawmaker proposing or doing something evil, harmful, or otherwise malicious, and they will declare: “The cruelty is the point.” It’s admittedly difficult to argue otherwise. We are past the point where we can dismiss Republican policy as cynical machinations to motivate their base. The politicians themselves are clearly outrunning public opinion, devising new and ever more cruel punishments for their various enemies. I see no other explanation: the cruelty is indeed the point.

If cruelty is the point, then these people are beyond shaming. Calling attention to their actions will have no effect, because they proudly boast of them. So the function of “cruelty is the point” must be as some kind of warning. We are living in a country where one half of the political class — or essentially the entire political class, on the state or local level in some parts of the country — openly declares their intent to use public authority in order to do harm. For them, the state machinery exists to punish their enemies, or sometimes (as in the Republican governors who have shipped asylum seekers to Democratic states) to torment third parties in order to burden or even simply embarrass their enemies. Every time they gain power, they will act this way. They are not receptive to rational argument, empirical evidence, or appeals to duty or the public good. In fact, to the extent that they have any idea of duty or the public good, it is precisely to abuse state power in the way they are constantly doing even as we speak.

My question is: what now? If cruelty is the point, and if there is a major political movement with a significant foothold in the state apparatus that seeks only to do malicious harm for its own sake, how should we respond to that? The apparent response, namely that we should make sure to vote in the midterms, seems to fall short of the threat. Surely it would be better and, in the long run, easier if we were able to defeat them within the existing legal guidelines — but the existing legal guidelines were developed at least in part by this dangerous, cruelty-addicted group, and whenever they gain power, they will change the rules to operate further in their favor. Every time they do that, our chance to stop them from doing the harm they fully and openly intend to do will grow less and less, until finally it will be too late and there will be no countervailing center of institutional power with motives other than cruelty. That would, I imagine, be very bad — in fact, probably worse than I would imagine, since I didn’t imagine how virulent and harsh the new misogynist legislation in the wake of Dobbs would be, and so quickly.

When facing a threat of that magnitude, one begins to have more radical thoughts. Maybe the rules that are at least half written by the party of cruelty are not worth preserving. Maybe taking the moral high ground has no value if there is no audience that actually cares about the moral high ground. Maybe using our window of control over the state apparatus to prosecute the crimes of which the leadership of the other party boasts daily would be a good way to prevent them from coming to power — partisan though it may appear! We could even continue following this line of thought in darker directions. If cruelty is the point, what option should not be on the table for preventing the party of cruelty from taking power?

That is not the direction such discussions tend to take, however. The original coinage of the term had that level of urgency, but it has now become a floating buzzword in The Discourse. In fact, I was unaware that it was coined by any particular individual at the time I originally wrote this piece — so my quarrel is not with Adam Serwer’s powerful article, but with the way it functions as a free-floating online syntagm. In that context, the rhetorical function of “cruelty is the point” is to cause the listener to supply the corollary: “therefore I have no choice but to vote for the Democrats no matter what.” If the only other option is intentional cruelty, then all of my complaints and disappointments with the Democrats and their various compromises and failures fade into unimportance. We’re trying to keep sadists out of office here, and you’re demanding your progressive wish list? Can’t you see that this is a major emergency? I mean, the monsters just overturned Roe v. Wade! There’s more where that came from — if you don’t vote for Democrats.

Except that we did vote for Democrats, in 8 out of the last 9 presidential elections, and the Democrats let the party of cruelty steal the country out from under them, with hardly a fight. They are clearly more committed to cooperating with their valued colleagues in the party of cruelty than to passing any significant legislation — even on their signature issue of abortion. Cruelty is the point, and they insist on maintaining a rule that forces them to collaborate with the party of cruelty in order to pass legislation. That’s not how you would behave if you understood the seriousness of one of the two major parties adopting cruelty as an end in itself. You would push on every lever and seek every possible means to keep them from being elected or exercising power — not giving them chance after chance to redeem themselves, not giving them half the credit for supplying one-sixth of the votes for one of your few legislative victories, not giving a national address whose main thrust was to highlight the good members in the party of cruelty, certainly not actively funding advertisements in favor of that party’s most extreme primary candidates.

Cruelty is the point. It’s absolutely true. It’s a terrible situation. But in the mouths of Democrats and most liberal pundits, it is a lie in the guise of truth. It is a slogan, an advertising jingle. The only conclusion they draw from it is that we should vote in the midterms because that’s all they want us to do. If cruelty is the point, that’s good for them, because it means they own us and we have no leverage to hold them accountable for their betrayals and failures. And because they refuse to use their power to build a durable majoritarian coalition and because they shy away from any effort to actively exclude the most dangerous elements of the party of cruelty, every election comes down to a coin flip — will it be the party of cruelty themselves, or the people setting us up for the party of cruelty’s next turn in office, who believe that the best way to win is to lose?

The choice is obvious, but it is equally obvious that the dynamic that keeps presenting us with this choice is intolerable and unsustainable. The people most loudly “warning” us that cruelty is the point will be the ones to hand the keys to the party of cruelty that last, decisive time, calm in their belief that this setback can only help them rake in more donations. It is small consolation that they will likely be among the first to learn firsthand that it was not a slogan or a jingle but a deadly earnest truth that cruelty is the point.

2 thoughts on “The cruelty is the point

  1. Do you think, Adam, that the mechanics of capitalism will ever have an absolute crisis or only temporary ones forever? Because this seems to be the horizon from which you write. Let me offer a strange thought experiment: what would happen if we began to reduce the length of the working day? Why is 8 hours the ultimate standard? What if it was 6 or 4 or 2? (This was the trend in the first part of the 20th century.) Notice that nothing else need be changed. Would this not be a path to communism? Our time, after all, is the capitalist’s money. Might I suggest Moishe Postone’s work as the theoretical underpinning of such a possibility.

  2. If there is such a crisis, it won’t be a “natural outgrowth” of the system, but the result of political struggle. I’m not sure when quantity turns to quality in your reduction of working hours, or whether it’s even possible to define that moment in advance. The point at which it becomes something other than capitalism is when everyone says to the capitalist class, “What is it exactly that you’d say you do here” and has the power to eliminate that function or role from the system.

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