We live our lives as socially self-conscious subjects, experiencing the world from our unique interiority. It is this interiority that makes life both valuable and our own. The essential difference between a human being and a robot is that while the robot can perform certain forms of movement and work, it does not know or care about what it is doing.
At the same time, our lives, experienced and valued subjectively, are caught up in complex webs of external objective forces and dynamics that can undermine us even though we in no sense “deserve” to be undermined. Economic and technological change can destroy historically established forms of life and the subjectively valued lives that were dependent upon them. People can thus exist “out of time” with goals and skills valued in an earlier era but now obsolete. But the obsolescence of skills does not kill the person, and those who are “out of time” are damaged by the changes they had no say in approving. Much of the manufacturing segment of the North American working class finds itself in this position today– alive, but no social demand for its skills.
Change in the objective circumstances of life that undermines demand for a certain from of labour does not negate the value of the people who formerly did that labour. While this point might be acknowledged as an abstract moral principle, at the level of social organization those who find their former occupations eliminated by technological development or relocation to markets in which labor is cheaper are actively devalued. They are lectured and hectored to get with the times, re-train, re-skill, re-invent; they are forced into precarious labour or service (servant) industries without unions or bargaining power to dignify the work. Entire communities and working class cultures are gutted and left swamps of anger and addiction.
The simultaneous collapse of working class living standards and fighting organizations ignites anger and anger seeks immediately release. Demagogic politicians have long used this anger to pole-vault to power. Donald Trump is but the latest in a long-line of populist American politicians who have mixed legitimate white working class anger with the toxic racism never far from the surface in America to create political momentum. While his racism needs to be condemned roundly and repeatedly, it is also essential to acknowledge the causes of the real and legitimate anger of working class people. I think a recent essay by McMurtry over-estimates Trump’s commitment to curtailing the power of money-capital and armed violence as the default policy of the United States, but his essay does lay bear those elements of Trump’s platform that (at least rhetorically) challenge the forces that have undermined working class living standards in the US.
Critics of Trump have not consistently acknowledged this legitimacy, tending to treat his supporters as little more than a racist mob. While there have been awful displays of racist violence, the deeper issue is that Trump is giving voice (cynically, I would argue) to real and legitimate frustrations of millions of working Americans whose lives are being actively dis-valued by the loss of manufacturing industries. Cut off from a past that is gone and shut out of a capital and not labour intensive digital future, without fighting unions or a working class party to constructively channel their frustrations, millions of white workers are looking to Trump to restore dignity to their lives and security to their livelihoods. If there is such a thing as class-interest– and the capital-friendly policies pursued by governments everywhere prove that there is– then I predict Trump, should he be elected, will prove a disappointment.
At the same time, the political mobilization of working class anger should not be regarded as a bad thing– but it needs to be re-directed, away from nativist and racist anger against Chinese and Mexican workers and towards the global ruling class- whose interest in accumulating ever more money-value is the reason for lack of investment in life-valuable work– and the system-dynamics of capitalism- which unhinge objective social forces from the subjective good of individual lives. There should be common cause between the white working class, youth, energized by sanders talk of “political revolution,” and the women and African Americans mobilized by the Clinton campaign.
While the particular experiences of white manufacturing workers, university students, and the sexually and racially oppressed are distinct, the structural conditions that cause the oppression are the same. The collapse of manufacturing industry, the skyrocketing debt and predominance of precarious employment for youth, the intensifying attacks on women’s rights and black communities and the growing backlash against LGBTQ gains have different experiential contours, but they all flow from the same underlying system-drive: turn the world into an instrument of the production and accumulation of money-value for appropriation by a largely white, male, straight ruling class and use politics as a means of distracting and dividing those harmed by this dynamic. This dynamic generates all the social pressures that set people in conflict with one another: where life-resources are not democratically controlled their will be competition over access to them and where there is competition, there is the potential for conflict. Where there is the potential for conflict there is the potential for it to be exploited by those who benefit from the current arrangement, as well as opportunities for normalizing and demonizing campaigns, surveillance and policing, and repressive strategies of mass incarceration.
My point is not to say that the concrete expression and experience of racism, sexism, homophobia etc, is everywhere the same. Instances of hate-driven mass homicide such as that which just occurred in Orlando cannot be predicted in their singularity from any model of society. What is predictable is that in social circumstances where political power depends, ultimately, upon the control a small minority exercises over universally needed resources, everyone who is not in that majority is set against each other in competition for the resources that they need. This competition generates all manner of possibilities for the construction of demonizing ideologies. Internalization of the demonizing ideology creates feelings of collective strength against the perceived opponent (White Americans against Mexican workers, white against black, etc.,) but in reality weakens the group in the fight against the real opponent– the institutions of money-capital. That result is of much service to the ruling class, which typically does not even have to consciously stoke such conflicts (although it can). Setting everyone in competition for life-resources generates the social pressures necessary to engender invidious hierarchies and demonizing ideologies.
Today’s predominant metaphor for understanding the multiplicity of experiences of oppression is “intersectionality.” The metaphor has the merit of highlighting the specificity of the historical development of different forms of oppression. Moreover, it highlights the complexity of identity: it is composed of individuated experiences of these histories and is not an undifferentiated point of consciousness. However, while intersectionality is useful for highlighting complexity and historical specificity, it has the demerit, I would argue, of failing to capture the internal unity of social identity. Roads intersecting are externally related to one another: the path of one does not shape the path of the other; they just happen to intersect at a given point. Social identity, however, is internally unified in such a way that each element shapes the others to form a person who experiences the world, acts and is acted upon, as this specific person. Of course, different contexts might call attention to one or other element of that identity (at work class might predominate and in a relationship one’s sexuality) but the person one is is the unified totality of the elements, not a crossing point where externally related factors happen to meet.
Why is this significant? Politically, it is significant because it emphasizes the need for an internally unified social and political movement directed against the underlying structural causes of all oppression, alienation, and exploitation, rather than an externally related coalition of different particular groups. The specificities of histories of oppression need not be submerged in an abstract unity in which one difference (class, in the Marxist tradition) predominates. We get around the problem of domination of the movement by one difference by working beneath them all to the common cause: all forms of oppression alienation and exploitation are different forms of being deprived of that which a human life requires to realize its life-capacities in concretely individual, socially valuable and valued, and meaningful ways. Racial oppression denies access to life-resources on the grounds of race and sexism on grounds of sex and one is not reducible to the other. But the general cause and experience of deprivation is the same.
By all means we should each tell our own stories and learn from one another. But common cause– which is what real social change ultimately requires- means finding a way of translating those particular stories into universal values. When we find that key we stop demonizing others who are, objectively speaking, on the same side. We do not dismiss unemployed white workers as racists when they lash out at foreign workers, we engage them in a debate that shows the underlying common structure of problems all workers face. So too for the black sexist or the female homophobe. We don’t moralize and lecture at them; we work down to the common ground that has impaired all oppressed groups from expressing their human capacities in concretely individual ways.
In a recent New York Times essay Thomas Friedman has argued that the Republican Party is a lost cause that should be abandoned for a new center-Right party. The Left in the United States should draw the same conclusion with regard to the Democrats (but drop the qualifier “center.”) This new party needs to find the common ground linking those who have been “left behind” by the economy to those who fear for their future (the young people mobilized by Saunders). It also needs to link together the best of working class politics (solidarity across differences and the discipline of democratic centralism) to the legitimate concerns underlying the practically and theoretically problematic identity politics that attracts the passions of the young. It also needs to draw upon the rich cultures of community-based constructive politics of radical feminist and African-American history.
Clearly, building a new party and a new movement is not a short term project and there is no substitute for actual political arguments between activists on the ground to build it. Nevertheless, the threats posed by either a Clinton or a Trump presidency indicate that now is the time to break free from all cults of personality– Trump, Clinton, or Sanders— to build a new unified left movement for change.