Stop Me If You Have Heard This One Before
In the mid 1980’s, when I began studying philosophy and became an active socialist, the major fault line on the left ran between Marxists (and other defenders of the “Enlightenment Project”) and post-structuralist critics of “essentialism.” The critic’s basic argument was that the Enlightenment was a Eurocentric project which falsely universalized a conception of human beings as subjects, i.e., rational, internally unified, self-determining agents, for whom freedom meant subjugation of the not-self. The “not-self” included all non-European peoples and non-conforming identities (feminists, gays and lesbians, racial minorities, etc.,) because they differed from norms assumed to be universal, but really (or so they claimed), relative to a particular discourse.
The fault line had two dimensions, theoretical and practical. My doctoral dissertation, (revised and published as Critical Humanism and the Politics of Difference) argued that the post-structuralist critique of human subjecthood was both philosophically and politically incoherent. Philosophically, as a critique of Eurocentric thought articulated in the name of freedom for different ways of being, it presupposes, on the part of the people whose lives express the differences, precisely the capacity for self-determination that their arguments deny. Politically, they were also wrong to argue that struggles against colonialism or oppression asserted something radically different, or “transgressive,” (Foucault) of the norms of freedom that had defined revolutionary struggles since the French Revolution. I showed, by studying what anti-colonialist revolutionaries actually said about their demands and goals, that they all asserted exactly what racists had denied of them: that they were self-determining human beings just like their oppressors (i.e, subjects of their own history).
Philosophically, I would still stand for the conclusions that I first defended more than 20 years ago. However, these philosophical arguments have done little to re-direct “identity politics” towards any sort of coherently unified political movement against capitalism. Claude Lefort argued in the 1980’s that Marxists were completely misunderstanding the struggles of women, gays and lesbians, and other minorities within advanced capitalist cultures. (see The Political Forms of Modern Society, pp. 264-272). These were the struggles of minorities who wanted to remain minorities, i.e., they wanted to be included as different, as outside the mainstream; they conceived liberation as liberation from normalizing constraints, not for the sake of participation in the wider revolution, but for the sake of being the people they wanted to be, safe from assault and attack, and free from the need to justify themselves. The past thirty years have proven Lefort correct, at least at the level of practice, so far as political struggle in liberal-capitalist states is concerned. There have been large mobilizations (against globalization in the 1990’s, Occupy, briefly, in the 2000’s), but these movements brought together myriad particular interests and never achieved any sort of synthetic, pro-socialist unity).
The global crisis of capitalism that began in 2008 did nothing to catalyze a new global socialist movement. Marxist critiques of capitalism remain vital academic reference points, but do not inform the practice of any but a tiny subset of activists anywhere in the OECD countries. There are powerful communist movements outside the OECD (in Kerala, India, and in Nepal, for example), and the project for Twenty-First Century Socialism has not yet completely given up the ghost in Venezuela, although it does appear to be near death. During the Arab Spring, far-left groups played almost no role (as I learned first hand from talking with an older Palestinian communist at a conference organized in 2011 by the Law School at my university).
The point: an historical materialist analysis of political developments since 1968 (the last major wave of struggle in the West directly inspired by Marxist ideas that could in some sense be called socialist) has to conclude that old forms of socialist struggle and the interpretation of the connection between class position and political identity has been refuted. Instead, identity politics remains the most vital current of struggle: people have continued to organize around a defense of their felt identities. Universal goals like “social justice” and “equity” are not tied to deep structural transformation of social institutions and global economic forces, but understood as legal and attitudinal changes brought about education and struggle against specific problems that assure everyone “safe space” to be who they feel themselves to be.
Fuck You, I Won’t Do What You Tell Me
Struggles to be different, to appear in public as the person one feels oneself to be in private, to express one’s desire and love, or one’s culture or racial identity, as one wants to express it, involved, and continues to require, tremendous courage. Nothing is easier than to rouse violent anger against vulnerable minorities. Struggles to change social norms and laws such that people are not menaced, attacked, or killed simply for being whomever they desire to be are essential. If there is a real diversity of identities, then society has to allow for their free expression if it is to be in any sense socially just.
At the same time, I think the tenor of struggle has changed. In the 1960’s, when the “new social movements:” radical feminism, black power, red power, chicano power, queer liberation, and the environmental movement were vital components of the New Left, they were all driven by the idea that “the system” itself had to be revolutionized. These groups emerged in a dual context: the stultifying conformity of 1950’s culture on the one hand, and the global wave of anti-colonial revolutions on the other. Reaction against the first gave rise to the exuberant iconoclasm of the movements, their insouscience (“sex, drugs, and rock n roll”), their revolutionary sensuality, their creativity, their boldness. The cultural explosion, however, was contained within a sophisticated political critique of the connections between the fundamental dynamics of capitalism, the destruction of the environment, racism, colonial violence, the patriarchal family, repressive control of sexuality, the alienation of labour, and the meaninglessness of consumer society. There was no one fully coherent theory that seamlessly deduced every problem from the dynamics of capital accumulation on a global scale, of course, but the different expressions of revolutionary critique each exposed in their own way some aspect of the interconnected whole. Marcuse’s political writings from the late 60’s to the early 70’s go some way towards a synthesis.
“Well, so what,” a critical interlocutor might respond. “That was then, this is now. You yourself said above that the only conclusion that it is possible to draw at this point in time is that the old means of struggle towards socialism are dead. So why are you lamenting the absence of a “revolutionary” sensibility in today’s struggles?”
It is a good question. However, what I lament is not the passing of an arch “revolutionary sensibility.” (I think historical contexts make sensibilities and theories revolutionary, and we are very far from a revolutionary historical context). What I worry about, rather, is a shift of focus from systemic dynamics as the cause of fundamental social problems to the identities and character of people as the cause of social problems, and ‘diversity” and a change of character on the part of people as the solutions.
To understand what I mean, consider the ubiquitous charge of “white male privilege.” The term does have some descriptive value: in a very abstract way, “white men” do exercise preponderant power, but the idea of “privilege” makes it sounds as if all white men have identical power that they somehow inherit upon being born as white men. By ignoring real internal differentiation within the imagined abstraction, politically relevant differences of power are ignored. We are left with the implied conclusion that all white men somehow rule over everyone else, and conspire to keep it that way, and that therefore their typical modes of behaviour are the real object of social struggle.
However, social reality is not composed of abstractions (‘all white men’) but real people, many of whom, even in the “privileged group” suffer poverty, ill-health, exploitation, alienation, and the sense that life is meaningless. Abstract categories that pay attention only to generic markers of identity completely ignore class differences that distinguish some white males from others. Only a very small subset exercise real power in society. Moreover, even they do not rule by fiat but according to social dynamics and structures that are more powerful and deeper than any group. These dynamics and forces shape all identities and are the causes of oppression, exploitation, and alienation. Abstractions like “white male privilege” personalise a structural-political problem and get in the way of building a unified movement in which all oppressed and exploited people recognise the common source of their problem and invent new ways to overcome it.
I am not denying that some white men really are priviliged, but calling into question the political significance of endlessly beating that drum, or pretending that if we paid more attention to the voices of others, all problems would be solved. To be sure, we should expand the canon, put women and other oppressed groups in positions of power, and be open to different ways of life, relationship, and self-understanding. But this politics of diversity leaves completely unexamined the deep drivers of war, violence, structural poverty, and authoritarian politics. Merely “allying” with one or another oppressed group around their particular issues is not enough to build the type of movement the world needs to solve those major problems. Ally-ship might be good for the soul (it can be presented as proof that privileged individuals care about the concerns of oppressed groups), but what we require is the old socialist idea of solidarity. Ally-ship is a giving of oneself over to the struggles of a group to which one does not belong (and that is, of course, a good thing). But solidarity was not about giving one’s self over to another group’s cause, but members of all groups recognizing a common source of their specific problems, and building a unified movement to solve them. Solidarity projects focused on changing the institutions, values, structures and dynamics of society, so as to make different relationships and people with different goals and values, possible. It was not about including a diversity of voices in the existing institutions, but fundamentally transforming them. Solidarity, in this precise sense, it what is politically lacking today.
There is of course a moral dimension to solidarity- the goodness of commitment– but it is not about character in the abstract. Abstract critique of character and values, or–worse– sorting rulers into good and bad capitalists (those who are inclusive and those who are suffocatingly old school in their defence of hierarchical management)– obscures the underlying structural problems. It does not tell us how people come to be the people they are. It ignores the social-structural factors involved in identity formation, the contextual pressures that act upon people, shaping their social position and values. One half of Marx’s claim that people make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing, is missing. Unless we can explain the circumstances, we are left with voluntarism: social change comes down to individuals deciding to change their character and commitments..
If privileged individuals try to stop acting as privileged individuals, it might make better people, but it will not on its own overcome the structural problems of racism, sexism, and the exploitation and alienation of labour. We should remember that it was not because Marx thought that workers were necessarily “morally” good people that he thought they held the key to a free future, but because their role in the process of production– a process upon which social life depended– positioned them to be a politically universal class (i.e., capable of solving the structural problems that capitalism generates).
He may have been wrong in so far as he thought that social dynamics would create the conditions in which all working people, regardless of nationality or identity, would come to recognise, and act on, their universal interests. Nevertheless, subsequent history has also proven that capitalism is compatible with female bosses and turning Gay Pride Parades into big business. That is not a criticism of Gay Pride or liberal equality, but a reminder that capitalism can become more inclusive without become less exploitative and alienating. Work as a space safe from sexual harassment is different from a workplace governed by the deliberative decisions of the workers as a collective. Capitalist popular culture is endlessly plastic: it can adapt to changing values and create sitcoms with same sex or trans people as the lead actors and portray them in a positive light. But it captures those identities within a socio-economic normalcy in which their identity is simply one amongst a diversity all pulling in the same direction as workers, parents, investors, citizens. The underlying problem of work, parenting, family structure, economic priorities and citizenship is not touched at all.
In order to get at these underlying problems it is not enough to “call out” people for their privilege, chastise people for their sense of humour, float vacuous abstractions about what all white men supposedly think and believe, or plead for “diversity,” “inclusivity,” and “social justice.” Chasing right-wing clowns around campuses trying to shut them up (only to, ironically, amplify their voices all the louder) is a waste of time. Of course, a society which includes different genders etc., should be inclusive of those genders, etc., but the goodness or badness of a society is not determined by whether its ruling class is monochrome or polychrome; it is determined by whether there is a ruling class at all, and how resources are controlled and utilised. What we are lacking right now is not a clichéd call for “revolution,” but unified movements that point at the heart of the problem: ownership and control of universally needed life-resources by a very tiny fraction of the global population and the use of epic violence, military and police, to protect those holdings and the monetary wealth they derive from them.