Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How the Global Left Destroyed Itself (or, All sex is not rape, but most poverty is) | naked capitalism

On the political bankruptcy of Identitarian politics... Can we now finally admit that "social justice" and Identitarian politics, absent economic justice, is a house built on sand?     ..... Michael Fiorillo comment, 
Michael Fiorillo sent this interesting piece. It bears further discussion, which we will probably do at this Friday's ICE meeting.
I think that the election has opened up issues for discussion on the left that have been buried.

How the Global Left Destroyed Itself (or, All Sex Is Not Rape)

Yves here. This piece gives a useful, real-world perspective on the issues discussed in a seminal Adolph Reed article. Key section:
… race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do. As I have argued, following Walter Michaels and others, within that moral economy a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people. It would be tough to imagine a normative ideal that expresses more unambiguously the social position of people who consider themselves candidates for inclusion in, or at least significant staff positions in service to, the ruling class.
This perspective may help explain why, the more aggressively and openly capitalist class power destroys and marketizes every shred of social protection working people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations have fought for and won over the last century, the louder and more insistent are the demands from the identitarian left that we focus our attention on statistical disparities and episodic outrages that “prove” that the crucial injustices in the society should be understood in the language of ascriptive identity.
My take on this issue is that the neoliberal use of identity politics continue and extends the cultural inculcation of individuals seeing themselves engaging with other in one-to-one transactions (commerce, struggles over power and status) and has the effect of diverting their focus and energy on seeing themselves as members of groups with common interests and operating that way, and in particular, of seeing the role of money and property, which are social constructs, in power dynamics. 

By David Llewellyn-Smith, founding publisher and former editor-in-chief of The Diplomat magazine, now the Asia Pacific’s leading geo-politics website. Originally posted at MacroBusiness

Let’s begin this little tale with a personal anecdote. Back in 1990 I met and fell in love with a bisexual, African American ballerina. She was studying Liberal Arts at US Ivy League Smith College at the time (which Aussies may recall was being run by our Jill Kerr Conway back then). So I moved in with my dancing beauty and we lived happily on her old man’s purse for a year.

I was fortunate to arrive at Smith during a period of intellectual tumult. It was the early years of the US political correctness revolution when the academy was writhing through a post-structuralist shift. Traditional dialectical history was being supplanted by a new suite of studies based around truth as “discourse”. Driven by the French post-modern thinkers of the 70s and 80s, the US academy was adopting and adapting the ideas Foucault, Derrida and Barthe to a variety of civil rights movements that spawned gender and racial studies.

Each of these was based fundamentally upon the principle that language was the key to all power. That is, that language was not a tool that described reality but the power that created it, and s/he who controlled language controlled everything through the shaping of “discourse”, as opposed to the objective existence of any truth at all.

For a naive if lively ski-instructing Aussie larrikan, being plunged into the hot bed of civil liberties debate was something of an eye-opener. Not least because there I was, flowing long blonde hair and all, getting it on with the same black, lesbian babe that much of the mono-gendered and rampantly tribade campus had a libidinous eye upon.

I recall several dinner debates in which I really did not understand just how out my depth that I was. At one, a gender studies major declared at a table of twenty women that “all sex was rape” owing to the act of penentration being a simulacrum with violation. When I pointed out that perhaps it was more a case of personal power and volition, as well as who was “on top”, I was unsure if she going to run me through with her fork or take me out the back and roger me senseless.

I was saved from penetration of some kind, by another more savvy girl who suggested that during sex the vagina may, in fact, be engulfing the penis, and so the violation may be the reverse!
Take it from me, dear reader, that the place was in an advanced state of politico-sexual meltdown.

Amusement aside there was something else transpiring that was going to, and has, had a very dramatic impact upon global politics. The post-structural revolution has led directly to the rise of the identity politics that today dominates Left-wing policy-making in Western nations and, concomitantly, the decline of class-based politics.

How exactly this happened is impossible to trace with any precision – though the book “No Logo” does a pretty good job of it – but we can observe the rough manner of transformation.
The post-structural revolution transpired before and during the end of the Cold War just as the collapse of the Old Soviet Union denuded the global Left of its raison detre. But its social justice impulse didn’t die, it turned inwards from a notion of the historic inevitability of the decline of capitalism and the rise of oppressed classes, towards the liberation of oppressed minorities within capitalism, empowered by control over the language that defined who they were.

Simultaneously, capitalism did what it does best. It packaged and repackaged, branded and rebranded every emerging identity, cloaked in its own sub-cultural nomenclature, selling itself back to new emerging identities. Soon class was completely forgotten as the global Left dedicated itself instead to policing the commons as a kind of safe zone for a multitude of difference that capitalism turned into a cultural supermarket.

As the Left turned inwards, capitalism turned outwards and went truly, madly global, lifting previously isolated nations into a single planet-wide market, pretty much all of it revolving around Americana replete with its identity-branded products.

But, of course, this came at a cost. When you globalise capital, you globalise labour. That meant jobs shifting from expensive markets to cheap. Before long the incomes of those swimming in the stream of global capital began to seriously outstrip the incomes of those trapped in old and withering Western labour markets. As a result, inflation in those markets also began to fall and so did interest rates. Thus asset prices took off as Western nation labour markets got hollowed out, and standard of living inequality widened much more quickly as a new landed aristocracy developed.

Meanwhile the global Left looked on from its Ivory Tower of identity politics and was pleased. Capitalism was spreading the wealth to oppressed brothers and sisters, and if there were some losers in the West then that was only natural as others rose in prominence. Indeed, it went further. So satisfied was it with human progress, and so satisfied with its own role in producing it, that it turned the power of language that it held most dear back upon those that opposed the new order. Those losers in Western labour markets that dared complain or fight back against the free movement of capital and labour were labelled and marginalised as “racist”, “xenophobic” and “sexist”.

This great confluence of forces reached its apogee in the Global Financial Crisis when a ribaldly treasonous Wall St destroyed the American financial system just as America’s first ever African American President, Barack Obama, was elected . One might have expected this convergence to result in a revival of some class politics. Obama ran on a platform of “hope and change” very much cultured in the vein of seventies art and inherited a global capitalism that had just openly ravaged its most celebrated host nation.

But alas, it was just a bit of “retro”. With a Republican Party on its knees, Obama was positioned to restore the kind of New Deal rules that global capitalism enjoyed under Franklin D. Roosevelt. A gobalisation like the one promised in the brochures, that benefited the majority via competition and productivity gains, driven by trade and meritocracy, with counter-balanced private risk and public equity.

But instead he opted to patch up financialised capitalism. The banks were bailed out and the bonus culture returned. Yes, there were some new rules but they were weak. There was no seizing of the agenda. No imprisonments of the guilty. The US Department of Justice is still issuing $14bn fines to banks involved yet still today there is no justice. Think about that a minute. How can a crime be worthy of a $14bn fine but no prison time?!?

Alas, for all of his efforts to restore Wall Street, Obama provided no reset for Main Street economics to restore the fortunes of the US lower classes. Sure Obama fought a hostile Capitol but, let’s face it, he had other priorities. And so the US working and middle classes, as well as those worldwide, were sold another pup. Now more than ever, if they said say so they were quickly shut down as “racist”, “xenophobic”, or “sexist”.

Thus it came to pass that the global Left somehow did a complete back-flip and positioned itself directly behind the same unreconstructed global capitalism that was still sucking the life from the lower classes that it always had. Only now it was doing so with explicit public backing and with an abandon it had not enjoyed since the roaring twenties.

Which brings us back to today. And we wonder how it is that an abuse-spouting guy like Donald Trump can succeed Barack Obama. Trump is a member of the very same “trickle down” capitalist class that ripped the income from US households. But he is smart enough, smarter than the Left at least, to know that the decades long rage of the middle and working classes is a formidable political force and has tapped it spectacularly to rise to power.
And, he has done more. He has also recognised that the Left’s obsession with post-structural identity politics has totally paralysed it. It is so traumatised and pre-occupied by his mis-use of the language of power – the “racist”, “sexist” and “xenophobic” comments – that it is further wedging itself from its natural constituents every day.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very doubtful that Trump will succeed with his proposed policies but he has at least mentioned the elephant in the room, making the American worker visible again.
Returning to that innocent Aussie boy and his wild romp at Smith College, I might ask what he would have made of all of this. None of the above should be taken as a repudiation of the experience of racism or sexism. Indeed, the one thing I took away from Smith College over my lifetime was an understanding at just how scarred by slavery are the generations of African Americans that lived it and today inherit its memory (as well as other persecuted). I felt terribly inadequate before that pain then and I remain so today.
But, if the global Left is to have any meaning in the future of the world, and I would argue that the global Right will destroy us all if it doesn’t, then it must get beyond post-structural paralysis and go back to the future of fighting not just for social justice issues but for equity based upon class. Empowerment is not just about language, it’s about capital, who’s got it, who hasn’t and what role government plays between them.

All sex is not rape, but most poverty is.


  1. I'm foaming at the mouth (some may think that my natural state) that some people on the left actually believe that those of us who find themselves by the genetic lottery or by choice in the "identitarian left" do not, or cannot, have a full and complete understanding of the way that their lives are embedded in a class structure which perpetuates racism and that the centuries long struggle to free individuals from social and cultural repression does not also advance social justice and the fight against capitalist and class-based oppression.

    It's not "identitarian politics" that destroyed the Global Left--it's the binary and absolutist thinking on the left that categorizes people and processes like this that will be its death.

    I won't be able to attend the ICE meeting, where I hope that some element of my understanding of the issues now facing us gets some voice.

    1. Is it possible the issue is foaming at the mouth which can prevent rational discussion? The comment yesterday listing the heart of the progressive movement disenfranchised people in my category. Being cut loose from the progressive movement may prove liberating

    2. Harris, it's not that those whose identities are oppressed lack a class-based understanding, it's that (in the case of the US) the Democratic Party completely abandoned the language of class, and substituted in its place the language of personal identity, important but incomplete. And that language of personal identity was too often underpinned by attitudes that were deeply class-bound. It reached a point where it appeared the Democrats were indifferent to economic suffering , inequality and injustice, just so long our neoliberal overseers met some gender, racial and other metrics. That is indeed a house built on sand, as I think the election has proven.

      It's not that civil rights, gay rights - I personally witnessed the Stonewall rebellion and its aftermath as a politically precocious 12 year-old, and saw the powerful Left currents at work in the gay rights movement of the time - and feminism must be sacrificed in order to achieve some fairy tale image of class consciousness; it's that the Democratic Party, symbolized by the Clintons, triangulated away its base by sacrificing workers - no matter their race, gender or gender identity - on the altars of "free trade," Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

      If it had remained even remotely true to its New Deal roots (which, admittedly, were problematic in many respects), we'd be having a very different discussion today.

  2. Of course, my mouth-foaming was, I hope to people who know me, rhetorical.

    Thank you, Michael, for clarifying the intent of the argument. I have been reading so many ill-tempered, unpersuasive and simply canting arguments about "identity politics" the last three weeks that I may be primed to react like a hydrophobic dog at this point whenever I see the term.

    I accept that American leftists, and most certainly the Democratic Party, have fetishized elements of what we used to call, less pejoratively, "cultural pluralism" (and words really do mean something short of enforced PC-ism) to the almost complete ejection from the conversation about developing a message that promotes fuller class consciousness and economic policies that can reach a much broader swathe of the American people.

    I urge everyone, however, to think constructively about how pluralism and populism can be joined together to make a compelling alternative message to the on that's been piped into the political culture for years now. I haven't been to a MORE meeting in a very long time and have PTSD thinking about some of the arguments about all of this, though I understand that things have calmed down in that grouplet of my friends and colleagues.

    I expect that the conversation will be no easier to resolve on the national stage than inside MORE but we can surely hope.

    Good luck on Friday. I hope to get a full report.


Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating). Or because your comment is irrelevant or idiotic.