Idealism is the belief that ideas are primary to matter; that consciousness determines being. As a materialist, I reject it. Really. I mean, I try to. I know I should. But this voice in my head keeps whispering, “If you explain just one more time, everyone will understand and agree with you.” This is idealism, because it ignores that my ideas flow from my conditions, and that other people’s ideas flow from theirs, and there is only a limited degree to which discussions can change ideas. I know that. And I will remember it. Tomorrow. But today, I’m going to try to explain just one more time.
In the last discussion of political correctness, David (professorperry) has quite correctly made it clear that I haven’t expressed myself well. I don’t know why people should expect me to express myself well. I mean, I’m only a writer for god’s sake. Let me see if I can take a different approach to this whole thing. It is obvious that I have given the impression that I believe the only, or at least the biggest, problem with Political Correctness is that it keeps you from doing more productive work. Let me try again.
The PC movement and the supporters of Identity Politics are closely aligned, and grew out of a very definite history. From the mid 60’s to the early 70’s, there was tremendous anger among youth, starting with outrage at the Vietnam War. Internationally, this was often anger (a healthy anger, in my opinion) directed at the US, which often turned into anger directed at their own governments. This reached a peak in France in 1968, during which time the French working class became involved on a massive scale, and international capitalism was shaken to its roots. You may not believe capitalism was ever actually threatened by the events in France, but it is very clear that capitalists did: read any major newspaper of the time.
The Vietnam War ended exactly when the student protests in the US began to spread out to include the unions. (Well, that and the military victories of the NLF.)
At the same time, it became directed at one man: Nixon, as the most extreme representative of the war, and of everything that was hateful about capitalism.
But these protests were just that–protests. They were led by those (SDS, SWP, SMC, &c) with no theoretical training in Marxism, and often an active hostility to Marxism or, in fact, theory of any kind. For the most part, they hated capitalism, but had no idea how to get from here to there–how to go from an outraged working class, to taking control of production. Could that have happened then? Personally, I doubt it; I don’t think conditions were right. The foundations could have been built for a movement prepared for the future. Instead, because of bankrupt leadership that based itself on the middle class, on begging the ruling class to be kinder, on accepting capitalism as given, what happened was that those involved in the protest didn’t see any way forward. I still remember that day: the day Nixon resigned. There was tremendous joy–and a simultaneous emptiness.
“Now what?” was the unspoken, almost unanimous question throughout the protest movement. And because of the lack of theoretical discussion, because of the failure to break from capitalism, because of the limited aims on the part of the leadership, the answer was: massive demoralization. This demoralization fractured the protest movement into many parts, depending on the mood and inclination of the individual. Food Co-ops, the New Age, &c.
As the working class had failed to do what the middle class radicals believed it should do (“reject material things” and “embrace anarchy” and above all, “follow our lead”), the middle class radicals gave up on the working class. Now many of them started reading Heidegger, and Marcuse, and others who had been demoralized by failures of the revolutions after WWI or WWII. The demoralized youth turned for guidance to the demoralized academic. Enter here the theories of the post-modernists. “Wait,” they cried. “It isn’t at all a matter of understanding the world, it is a matter of which ideas you chose to accept. It is a question of picking the proper narrative for what you wish to accomplish. Let us not only reject the working class as the revolutionary class, but, along with that, science as the means to understand social relations. In fact, let us reject science altogether; it just leads to progress, and what is progress but a narrative that leads to war and prejudice and oppression?” Of course, different elements stopped in different places along this spectrum; some still accept science as long as it is kept “in its place.” Others are suspicious of progress, but want us to redefine it rather than reject it utterly. What they have in common is rejection of the idea that we can understand social relations and make that understanding work for us to accomplish definite ends.
This marriage of the New Left and the Post-Modernists produced offspring as disfigured as one might expect. One of the most vacuous pieces of New Left ideology was, “the personal is the political.” This was very attractive to middle class radicals who had given up on the working class but felt comfortable discussing what was inside of their own–and others’–heads on a very personal basis. Combine it with substitution of “narrative” for science, and, hey presto! We have the beginnings of what we call political correctness.
By the 1980s, when Reagan was attacking the unions and capitalism was preparing and launching efforts to destroy anything that interfered with unfettered profit–these same middle class radicals had stock portfolios, and good jobs, and tenure, and some of them had even propelled themselves out of the middle class entirely. Their rejection of the working class was easy–they’d already done it.
And then those who wanted to tell themselves they were doing good came together with those who who didn’t care about doing good, but wanted to break down the gap between the high-income middle class black and the high-income middle class white; between the high-income middle class man and the high-income middle class woman. These groups came together easily and naturally. To them, the problem is not property relations that cause oppression and poverty and bare subsistence for millions upon millions of people; the problem is inequality between different sections of the upper middle class. From there, if you believe that “the personal is the political,” it is a simple step to saying, “I will break down this inequality among the upper middle class by making sure no one uses the generic ‘he.'” Altering language becomes the substitute–not for action in the most literal sense–but for fighting to understand the world from the point of view of taking action; from fighting to actually end oppression, to fighting to reduce inequality among the privileged.
Today’s PC movement is an outgrowth of the subjective idealism of the New Left. Subjective idealism is the belief that consciousness determines being combined with a focus on the consciousness of individuals, rather than the consciousness of the masses. Just like its empty-headed twin sibling Identity Politics, it ends up supporting capitalism, supporting oppression, and making the struggle for genuine equality more difficult.