The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Identity Politics and the PC Movement: An Historical Look

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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.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

48 Comments

  1. Meh. I see it this way. If someone tells me that she isn’t Black, or African-American, or Indian, she’s a person of color, I think it’s courteous to refer to her, should the need arise, as a person of color. If someone tells me that they prefer to be identified as queer rather than gay, if I am a courteous soul, I will remember that.

    If I am writing instructions for using software I will either alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns, or use plurals. I will not engage in obscene collocations like s/he. Nor will I refer to herstory or womyn. I will, however, attempt to be inclusive. As a writer, the basic principles of rhetoric require me to shape my diction and style and delivery based on my purpose and audience. Courtesy to all my readers—never mind my friends—also demands inclusiveness.

    If I am writing a document about how much shielding a delicate scientific instrument requires measured in time and exposure to radiation, I’m not going to refer to the potentially damaging radiation as “sunshine units.” Nor am I vertically challenged; I am short, of if you’re courteous, petite. At the same time, I am not learning disabled; I am dyslexic.

    English is the most copious language in the history of human languages. We can do better than political correctness of any sort.

  2. skzb

    “Meh. I see it this way. If someone tells me that she isn’t Black, or African-American, or Indian, she’s a person of color, I think it’s courteous to refer to her, should the need arise, as a person of color. If someone tells me that they prefer to be identified as queer rather than gay, if I am a courteous soul, I will remember that.”

    Yep. I’m on board with that.

  3. When speaking about people, I try to use the language they prefer to be spoken about it. “Within reason,” I would say, but then, there’s the rub: we draw the lines at reasonable in different places. I find “womyn” hilarious, some other people of my gender would find it more respectful; if someone wants to use it for herself, I’m not going to quibble, because it’s her call. So one ends up trying to get a gist for the majority opinion, which isn’t going to please everyone, because of course part of the whole point of looking at people as individuals rather than as stereotypes is that there ain’t a one of us that’s actually part of a monolith.

    (Heck, sometimes I don’t even agree with myself.)

    I think that class issues get ignored a lot in some parts of the whole social justice movement. But I also see class issues brought up as a way of derailing other conversations. “Racism isn’t an issue because it’s all about class.” “Sexism isn’t an issue because it’s all about class.” “(Insert anything someone doesn’t want to see talked about here) isn’t an issue because it’s all about class.” Which is unfortunate on multiple levels, one of them being that I end up looking at “It’s a class issue” and having my reflexive response be, “Oh, that person is trying to keep anyone from talking about other issues that make them uncomfortable.” Which is not fair: that a response can be used in bad faith doesn’t necessarily mean that all uses of it are in bad faith.

    In general, I’m uncomfortable with any discussion of power structures and/or oppression that tries to reduce everything to a single axis, in the same way that I’m uncomfortable with any reading of history that explains everything via a single type of motivation.

    I guess the short version of this is: I agree with portions of what you said above about class issues being important and often neglected, but I don’t think that in any way invalidates other approaches to issues of oppression. I was an angry feminist up in arms about language use back in middle school at the same time that the other kids were making fun of my clothing for being low-class by their standards.

    (Which is possibly a cry-me-a-river story, since “low class” meant buying clothes from thrift stores and wearing hand-me-downs, not living in a single set of clothes on the street. My exact same circumstances and same family income were solidly upper-class in our usual surroundings.)

  4. skzb

    Well, Fade, here is how I approach it:

    The argument that runs, “Race distinctions are less important that class distinctions because class distinctions make a bigger difference in how one lives,” may be true, but, for most purposes when discussing racism, are beside the point.

    However.

    Class divisions are, in my opinion, the fundamental divisions in society. I believe that the class struggle is, above all, what determines a society’s past and future. I believe that racism, sexism, and homophobia are about what is in the mind of the bigot; class distinctions are about actual, material property relations, and will not go away absent revolution, no matter who is educated in what way or how much.

    Discussions of racism that that ignore class divisions may well be useful for exchanging subjective experiences, and for making individuals feel better, and they have a perfect right to do that, and I’ll stay the hell out of their way when they do, and I didn’t mean that at all as condescending as it sounded. But such discussion will not and cannot make a meaningful contribution to ending racism. That is my opinion and I am standing by it.

  5. I think inclusiveness and courtesy require an awareness that your audience will include people who are not like you, who may not have a place to sleep, or eaten in the last two days. And yes, I think that’s true on the ‘net, as well as in person and in print. My experience is not yours; yours is not mine.

  6. Somehow I’m reminded of _Issola_. Glad to be chained to a wall in your company as a “glad you asked” digression of major proportions is launched? Good to have the excuse, right? Damn, I’m chained to this wall. I dunno, something like that.

  7. “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.”

    Steve, thank you. PC depresses me deeply, and I’d always wondered where it came from. In terms of functionality, I think political correctness serves as a sort of religion, and the behaviors, and protocols, and literature that have developed around it, a church dogma, for some folks. Like religion, it’s often most passionate practiced by those who have the least awareness of its origins.

  8. Can someone let me know if I’m reading this right?

    Starting the same discussion from another angle, racism, sexism, etc. have more of an effect in a capitalist system, because the object of an individual is to acquire personal wealth rather than the wealth for a society, and things that make this harder for people to do have a big impact in their status in society and their ability to provide themselves food and shelter. On the other hand, while in a communist system they still have a big impact, living in a society that is racist or sexist or etc. doesn’t mean that you have to fight harder to get what you need to survive, so you’re at least one rung up to start with.

    So what people are saying is, “I live in a capitalist system, therefore I should focus on these particular things to try and level the playing field,” and Mr Brust is saying “why live in a capitalist system in the first place?”

  9. skzb

    Ethyl: Your last paragraph more or less hits it; except that, in my opinion, those asking to “level the playing field” are not actually trying to level the playing field, just to tip the playing field in such a way that more flows to where they’re standing.

  10. I have several thoughts and am not sure I will express them clearly. (Let’s be honest, though, expressing them clearly is less important to me than not making people mad at me.)

    First, when you talk about a protest movement that rejects theory and has no idea how to get there from here (or any unified idea of what ‘there’ is) I get a little wave of disorientation because you’re obviously talking about occupy but the decade is wrong. Strange, huh? I wanted to love occupy, but felt let down by a movement that promised action relating to my vast frustration and anger but didn’t seem to be go anywhere.

    Second, with the PC language stuff. I feel like some language has more at stake. Trans people are being murdered by bigots and I’m uncomfortable with putting that struggle aside even in favor of a larger more useful struggle. I worry that uniting the working class would leave some people behind if we don’t also work against their systematic dehumanization. So working against some of the bigotry remains important to me, and speaking out against hate speech is part of that.

    Third, well, I think that’s as far as I’m getting with any of this. I hate posting my opinions on the internet.

  11. skzb

    The comparison with occupy is apt. I think, in general, the Occupy movement came from the same social milieu as identity politics.

    I am all for working against bigotry; but I do not believe trans people–or anyone else–will be able to achieve equality as long as we live with capitalist property relations. Fighting against bigotry as part of the fight for the independence of the working class is, in my opinion, significantly different from fighting against bigotry instead of fighting for the independence of the working class.

  12. I’ve seen plenty of people more interested in addressing the racial aspect of policy suggestion/submission/reality X, when, if you tell someone “Actually that group of ‘lazy people’ includes white people”, they’re likely to, at worst, have a brief flash of surprise, and then assimilate that: “Okay, but the lazy ones.”

    It does not–by any means–apply across the board, but focusing on whether, for instance, my current state’s pondering of increasing sales tax on food is intended to affect “only black people” is utterly irrelevant, but I’ve seen people do that. And even if it isn’t INTENDED to do what Steve’s talking about (intentionally distract from the real issue)–in that particular context, that’s all it does. The problem isn’t that it’s racially motivated (whether it is or isn’t)–that’s a heinous thing for it to be, but the problem is the effect, more than anything else.

    At least, uh, I think I’m gathering that point correctly…

  13. Steve

    In formal debating terms, this sentence is a ‘Point of Information’; identity politics has a meaning in English English which is radically different to that in American English.

    I do strive to address people as they wish to be addressed, as a matter of personal courtesy, but that’s got bugger all to do with identity politics as defined on this side of the pond…

  14. skzb

    Now that is interesting indeed; I had no idea.

  15. ” Fighting against bigotry as part of the fight for the independence of the working class is, in my opinion, significantly different from fighting against bigotry instead of fighting for the independence of the working class.”

    I think this is a “pick your battles” type of scenario as well. If someone is an excellent pikeman, do you put him in the cavalry? If someone is a perfect marksman, do you stick him in a tank?

    Oh wait, disregard that analogy. In our Armed Forces, yes, yes you do.

    At any rate, people tend to work and fight for causes that appeal to them the strongest *emotionally*. Most people give time and/or money to a/some cause(s) that strike THEM as important. These causes are organized, they have leaders. They have handy slots where people can volunteer and help out. They have easy cards to fill out with your name, address, and credit card number if you have more money than time and still want to help out.

    Some folks LEARN a bunch about the cause, and others base their support on emotions. Either way, there is a handy niche for everyone.

    So, with whatever makes me sad, stray kittens, uneducated youth, hungry babies, homeless folks, oppressed minorities, lonely elderly, disabled veterans, name that cause, I can find a half-dozen places to go here locally and donate time and/or money to “my” cause or causes.

    So, umm, I am willing to donate my skills for the Great and Just cause of Socialism. I am willing to attend protests, help make and pass out pamphlets, I have a ton of skills that might be useful, from building filing cabinets to training people how to properly fire the M16A2….where do I sign up?

    Oh wait, there IS no place locally for me to do a dang thing. It’s not that there are not any socialists here…we had Occupy here as well and more than 2/3 of them described themselves as socialists. A couple were even philosophy professors.

    There are numerous places for me to help kittens, we even have Habitat for Humanity so that I could build homes for needy folks. ANY “cause” I want to support, I can do so locally. I can be a part of educational outreach, participate in events or protests, or pretty much anything, *except for socialism*.

    Not that there are not National Socialist groups, parties, etc., but their stuff seems to all be concentrated in the coastal cities, NY, LA, SF, etc. If I want to do anything locally, I guess I would have to organize it myself, except that I don’t *have* those skills.

    So I guess I am left with bitching over the internet, explaining how Obama is not socialist to the neighbors, and telling the farrier that it is NOT okay to use the “N” word around me.

    To have a movement, and therefore a revolution, REQUIRES organization. Organization which allows the members of the movement (and future revolution) to feel that they are contributing, however incrementally, towards the achievement of the movement’s goals. For the love of little green apples, fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organizations have more organization than *WE* do!

    Revolutions don’t just fall into people’s laps out of revolts…they are organized, planned, and executed with like-minded individuals. Tribal Freedom has failed due to lack of organization. Occupy failed due to lack of organization.

    ~shrugs~ You can’t really blame people for trying to achieve the change they CAN, even if it is only in keeping others from using derogatory words.

    Now, please excuse me, I have a trap to fix. There are feral kitties that need to be trapped, get their shots, get spayed/neutered, and then released if they are not able to be tamed. My part in that is making sure the traps are in good repair.

  16. This is a well-structured narrative of a particular strand of identity politics as it relates to speech. It’s very clear. I still think it’s just a strand, and that the broader questions of controlling representation remain valid, but I understand your argument and am thinking about it. Thanks (I know you didn’t do it for me!).

  17. Fade, you say, “I’m uncomfortable with any discussion of power structures and/or oppression that tries to reduce everything to a single axis, in the same way that I’m uncomfortable with any reading of history that explains everything via a single type of motivation.”

    And I agree with you fully.

    Then you say, “I also see class issues brought up as a way of derailing other conversations.”

    And I say, “Huh?”

    The people who complain about “class reductionists” could as easily be called “race reductionists” or “race isolationists”, because they don’t want no stinking class in their understanding of race. It invariably makes me wonder about the source of their understanding of race. How could racism have evolved without a class system to provide a structure?

    Do they think Frederick Douglas was wrong when he said this: “The hostility between the whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the poor whites and the blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each.”

    Do they think Eric Williams was wrong with this: “Here then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor…This was not a theory, it was a practical conclusion deduced from the personal experience of the planter. He would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China.”

    I submit that it calls for great privilege to be able to imagine racism in a vacuum.

  18. “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.”

    Yes. Also the media told young people that they were very important because there were so many of them. The media told vendors that young people would be a giant important market.

    “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.”

    Yes, we got an increasing consensus that the war was bad. A lot of people were ready to say the North Vietnamese government was evil, but they didn’t think the South Vietnamese government was good. The tactics did not fit American concepts of victory — we couldn’t push the enemy armies back toward their capital. We didn’t like the casualties or the expense. And Nixon made a point of pretending to ignore dissent.

    “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.”

    Of course. The movement was a loose coalition, all they had in common was the war. It was mostly a middle class movement because the bulk of the society was middle class. Marxists did work on the foundation of a future movement, but mostly they got ignored because they were Marxists. People let them join the loose coalition but they were more a liability than an asset because their participation tended to discredit the rest of the 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”

    Yes. They had a coalition to stop the war. When the war was stopped the coalition broke up and everybody went their own way. There was no consensus about capitalism, there was only a consensus about the war.

    “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.”

    They had nothing in common with the working class. It was mostly Marxists who thought the working class was particularly important anyway. We no longer had a pyramid-shaped income distribution, it had become a diamond-shaped distribution and the working class was a minority that tended to be not as well educated.

    “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.” …. 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.”

    Pomos noticed that even when scientists try hard to do good science, still they get blindsided by assumptions they don’t notice they are making. There’s something arbitrary about that. I liked the pomos I met, they were gentle free spirits. They didn’t try to prove their points with data and logic because they saw that attempts to do that were usually flawed. But of course that left them not proving their points. I think it’s better in science to make alternate hypotheses that violate unspoken assumptions when you notice those assumptions, because the more of that you can make conscious the better the science you can do. But that’s extra hard with social science, where the grand theories about humanity come first and then tiny experiments testing very specific things can be done — the assumptions are so big and so fundamental they are very hard to test.

    “This marriage of the New Left and the Post-Modernists produced offspring as disfigured as one might expect.”

    I didn’t find anything useful from the New Left. But I didn’t look carefully. There could be diamonds hidden in that cesspool.

    “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.”

    Most of them had never had much to do with the working class at all. It rejected them and they rejected it. Really not much interaction to begin with.

    “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.”

    Yes. They cared about their own society. They were not much interested in people who talked different and dressed different, who liked different TV shows, who liked NASCAR and pro wrestling as much as they liked football.

    “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.”

    Yes! What can they do about oppression and poverty? On the job they just do the jobs they are supposed to do. Off the job they have no power. They can write checks for whatever charities look good.

    But they can enforce social rules among the people they see every day. If one of them is a racist they can send him to counseling with Human Resources. Assuming he doesn’t pick up on social hints. They can’t change the rest of the world but they can make sure that nobody acts bigoted where they are.

    “Today’s PC movement is an outgrowth of the subjective idealism of the New Left. …. 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.”‘

    Sure. These people are basicly upper middle class. They do not feel like they actually have power, and in fact they do not. They do not much associate with working class people. Maybe the au pair or the housekeeper. At work, the janitor and the cleaning ladies, maybe some of the secretaries. Maybe the auto mechanic, though he might be a well-off proprietor.

    They do not want to talk to their working class acquaintances and hear about dogfights or cockfights, about relatives who use meth or crack, relatives who work in titty bars or attend titty bars, fundamentalist christianity, etc. They would rather not know.

    They do not want to find out about marxism. If they become marxists and tell their co-workers about it, they may get bad performance reviews and they will be unable to get security clearances if that possibility arises. People will be nervous around them. No fun.

  19. “Fighting against bigotry as part of the fight for the independence of the working class is, in my opinion, significantly different from fighting against bigotry instead of fighting for the independence of the working class.”

    Okay, I can embrace “and”.

  20. skzb

    Jenphalian: Um, actually, I’m not sure it’s possible in this case. I must think about that.

  21. “Fighting against bigotry as part of the fight for the independence of the working class is, in my opinion, significantly different from fighting against bigotry instead of fighting for the independence of the working class.”

    ‘Okay, I can embrace “and”.’

    Are you saying that fighting against bigotry and also fighting for the independence of the working class are OK to do together?

  22. Man, these posts make me want to hug you.

    I recently read an article in which the author, after dismissing the concerns of other people as far less important than those of her particular minority group, claimed that the world’s real problem was the status quo: the White Patriarchy. Meanwhile some of the most powerful representatives of capitalism, enforcing austerity and continuing policies of war and torture, are people like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell… How disconnected from reality can you get? You’d think people would have gotten the point when Margaret Thatcher turned out to be not so very nice, or when Madeleine Albright said the deaths of half a million Iraqi children were “worth it.” Capitalists are capitalists, no matter the colour of their skin or the genitalia between their legs.

    It’s interesting to note that both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were moving away from a purely identity-based movement to a much more economics-based approach when they were assassinated.

  23. skzb: Thanks for the thoughtful monographic impression of 50 years of cultural history. Never quite saw that line though the decades so clearly, probably because I was seeing other ones.

    That brings up the one thing that I think us materialists who tend to think like idealists (sometimes) outta recall. Whichever class controls the means of production gets to tell the story and gets to do the naming of things. I think in Marx’s writings it’s something like “Those who control the material means of production also control the philosophy of the era.” From Capiital, Vol 3, there’s this little bit about how the capitalists wielded the Bible against the monarchy, but when they had won, “Locke supplanted Habbakuk.

    If material conditions play the dominant role in determining consciousness, then the revolution in the so-called First World or West is in deep trouble, because the industrial working class that will lead the revolution is busy moving from Mexico to Korea to Vietnman and wherever wages are lower and pollution isn’t in the lexicon of the government in charge. Yet, alienation is as present as ever in a capitalist society, just wayyyyy harder to realize the experience of alienation as acutely or as fiercely as a member of the industrial working class does.

    Yet, as you suggest, in 1968 in France at least, it almost got started anyway. So the ruling class coopts those it can by elevating them into its economic rank, and while the FBI and NSA are out after every stripe of Marxist they can find from deepest crimson to most pastel pink, Marcuse is a safe harbor because he’s defanged himself. And this is where PC comes in, if I may inject an element into your monograph:

    The U.S. Civil rights movement. Forget the written history for a moment, but consider that members of the white middle class consistently demonstrateda willingness to get their heads bashed in, bitten by dogs and sprayed by fire hoses right alongside their black brothers. Not a huge number, but the images became powerful symbols. The PC movement, by declaring hurtful words out of bounds, helps settle this whole movement.

    If you can’t talk about it, you can’t forge a consensus. Even more, if there’s no evidence of discussion, there is no evidence at all. Racism is on the decline because no one casually drops the n-word as Lyndon Johnson was wont to do. Things are better because hate speech is gone, or relegated to the fringe and mocked.

    And I think the trap goes deeper. Identity politics is not just the story told by a few academics and radicals, it’s in the air we breathe. Consider: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

    So yeah, I think ideas do matter. Ideas that correspond to the truth people are living carry more power than those that justify the fantasy position that alienation is normal and good. So how do ideas get communicated? Huh, Mr. Writer?

  24. So, in general terms, there’s a difference in scope, and can we address that? I brought up trans* people as an example, and some previous discussion was on people with Downs. How many people are first-hand affected by those issues? I don’t want a number, just to point out that it is a very different number than when we talk about women’s rights or racism or even gay rights (which, re: the lattermost, I wish I could find the piece I read a while ago on the gentrification of that movement in America and how silly the writer found the idea of fighting for marriage equality).

    So I’m asking about embracing “and” to care about visibility for and fighting bigotry against small segments of the population. It seems to me there ought to be a place for that.

    Will – I did find that article interesting and heartening, thank you.

    Steve – I await the time you do me the honor of coalescing your further thoughts on this matter with sweet anticipation. By which I mean to indicate interest, not be pushy about it.

  25. skzb

    Jonas: You know, I wasn’t quite enough of an idealist when Thatcher was in office to believe, “There, now all the middle class feminists will understand.” But, really, I had expected at least some of them to be a little shaken. Not that I noticed. It was astonishing. Will Shetterly has made that point about Malcom X and MLK several times over the years; and it is worth repeating.

    JP: Ideas are communicated through art, through discussion, through propaganda; but, like that overused metaphor of planting crops, they require the right soil (ie, objective conditions) and season (moment). In other words, there is a time when the consciousness of the working class will be ready to change, suddenly and by the millions. Preparing for that time is the key task. I don’t know how old you are; I’m 57. Maybe not that old, but I’ve seen a lot. My optimism in the socialist future of mankind isn’t shaken.

    Meanwhile, every time a worker comes closer to understanding that Stalinsim is not Socialism, that Stalinism was not inevitable in the Soviet Union, that there is a way out; we take a step forward. Every time a worker comes closer to seeing his unique, individual conditions as part of what is happening in society, and comes closer to seeing himself as part of a class, we take a step forward.

    For those of us who are artists (in the broadest sense of artist), our job is simple: Tell the truth, and keep telling the truth. Tim Powers is a right-wing republican, and, against his will, one of the most subversive writers in the field. Because he tells the truth.

    Which gets back to what jenphalian asked. Can you do both? I don’t think it is possible to fight for class consciousness and at the same time support identity politics without, at some level, lying. Perhaps I’m wrong about that. But if I’m right, then the answer is no; because at this point in history, telling the truth (which means, above all, knowing the truth) is what is key.

    Does that help?

  26. skzb

    Jen: Heh. Cross-posted. If the question is just, “Can we fight bigotry,” then not only can we, but we should. The questions are: How to do so, and what is our endgame?

  27. That actually clears things up for me quite a bit. Not in the sense of having any answers, but in the sense of re-writing my question. So if what I was asking was whether it’s counterproductive to even ask the questions you pose in that second comment, well, I think we’re good.

    To actually address the questions of ‘how’ and ‘endgame’, well, I can’t. I’m not a mastermind. I take notes.

  28. I’m finding the end of this discussion, both with Jenphalian and skzb, extremely clarifying (which is gratifying, because usually threads that stretch over a few hundred comments and multiple blog entries do NOT end with anything like clarity).

    “Which gets back to what jenphalian asked. Can you do both? I don’t think it is possible to fight for class consciousness and at the same time support identity politics without, at some level, lying. Perhaps I’m wrong about that. But if I’m right, then the answer is no; because at this point in history, telling the truth (which means, above all, knowing the truth) is what is key.”

    I’m going to think about that a lot, Steven. I think you’re wrong, but I’m really not sure. This point about the truth, though, is important.

  29. skzb

    Jen: We should really start on Anti-During. I’ve found an online version here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Engels_Anti_Duhring.pdf

  30. “If material conditions play the dominant role in determining consciousness, then the revolution in the so-called First World or West is in deep trouble, because the industrial working class that will lead the revolution is busy moving from Mexico to Korea to Vietnman and wherever wages are lower and pollution isn’t in the lexicon of the government in charge. Yet, alienation is as present as ever in a capitalist society, just wayyyyy harder to realize the experience of alienation as acutely or as fiercely as a member of the industrial working class does.”

    Until recently, there was no substitute for human eyesight. A human being could look at things and see problems that no machine could handle. Humans were required to drive on roads and inspect printed circuits etc.

    That is no longer true. Now depending on the need, an electronic eye closer to a frog’s eye or a cat’s eye can be used. Computers can sometimes detect edges better than humans, detect motion, detect subtle gradients, etc.

    Now, any job that can be specified precisely can be automated. The only reason to have an industrial working class is that it is cheaper to rent their labor than to own machines. And that is gradually changing too.

    When your job is to imitate a machine, but cheaper, how important are you? I say, not very important. People are slow and they make mistakes, but if they are cheap enough that balances out….

    The balance between capital and labor is tilting to its ultimate. Capital can replace the industrial working class completely. If there is sufficient reason to.

    “Yet, alienation is as present as ever in a capitalist society, just wayyyyy harder to realize the experience of alienation as acutely or as fiercely as a member of the industrial working class does.”

    We are not adapted to our current material conditions.
    The autobiography _I, Nuligak_ is a condensed version of the life of an (Inuit (eskimo if you don’t mind nonPC or if you don’t catch Inuit) over 50 years or so. Apparently he told about every hunt he ever did, from memory, in order. The editors cut out most of it because they thought readers would be bored, and only kept the most interesting bits.
    http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?kn=I%2C+nuligak&sts=t&x=75&y=15

    Could you do that? If you have an office job, could you describe what happened at the office every day since you took the job? It isn’t that your life is more complex than his. It’s that it is less real.

    I don’t want to live on the edge of starvation. But when people sit on a big pile of food, and they have nothing better to do than wait for something to happen, they get depressed.

    “So yeah, I think ideas do matter. Ideas that correspond to the truth people are living carry more power than those that justify the fantasy position that alienation is normal and good.”

    Christian ideas are very powerful. They give people reason to feel deeply, in a variety of ways. But they do nothing to change things today. It could be argued that they broke the Roman ideals, but today’s systems are immune to them.

    In the short run, ideas that fill people’s needs have power. The ideas fail if they are so contradictory to reality that people can’t maintain them.

    Ideas that inspire people to do something that satisfies them, have more power than ideas that don’t. If the actions that satisfy them also improve the world in some way (from their own perspective or in terms of humanity in general), that is a plus.

  31. professorperry, I’m offering this so Steve can clarify, perhaps, because so often in these discussions, our shared language separates us. We read the same words to mean different things–that’s especially true of any group that’s trying to understand the world, like identitarians, Marxists, Baptists, etc.

    Identitarians frame the issue as “you’re with us or you’re against us.” They say that to support the oppressed, you must buy into their framework of understanding oppression. Of course socialists fight for gay folks and people of every hue and anyone who’s suffering. That’s our history. “Feminism” was coined by a white male socialist in the 19th century. Oscar Wilde was a gay-rights socialist. Eugene Debs was mighty fine on racial progress. Et infinitely cetera.

    Now, it’s certainly true there have been racist and sexist and homophobic people who called themselves socialists. But at the risk of approaching “true Scotsman” and Godwin territory simultaneously, people who limit what they call socialism are not socialists. National Socialism was fascism, not socialism–as Upton Sinclair noted, “Fascism is capitalism plus murder.”

    In theory, all you need to know to understand the universality of the socialism is here: “Workers of the world unite.” There are no qualifications on “worker”, not of gender or race or nationality or religion or any other divide that identitarians think are fundamental.

  32. I just checked Debs’ “Danger Ahead” to see if I was remembering him correctly, and I was damn near parroting him. He said, “When Marx said: “Workingmen of all countries unite,” he gave concrete expression to the socialist philosophy of the class struggle; unlike the framers of the Declaration of Independence who announced that “all men are created equal” and then basely repudiated their own doctrine, Marx issued the call to all the workers of the globe, regardless of race, sex, creed or any other condition whatsoever.” He wrote that in 1903. I’ve yet to see an identitarian improve on it.

  33. Will – I understand what you’re saying, I believe, I just think you apply term too broadly so that it becomes a way of dismissing anyone who thinks identity is an important variable.

    I’m an academic and surrounded by some scholar who reify identity, and I’m fully comfortable calling them identitarians. Some would likely embrace the label. I think there is room, though, for complexity. And I am always suspicious of teleologies as they tend to generate bad scholarship.

    I’m going to opt out of the broader discussion of Socialism’s universality and its implications, positive and negative, at least for now.

  34. Is that the best translation? Because in all honesty that webpage is ugly and I won’t get very far. I’m inclined to grab this: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/anti-duhring-herr-eugen-duhrings-revolution-in-science-friedrich-engels/1106660550?ean=2940013282278

  35. Jen, can’t vouch for its quality, but there are copies here:

    http://archive.org/details/antidhringherr00enge

    Also, a great way to deal with ugly web pages:

    http://www.readability.com/

  36. David, I’ve run into an awful lot of identitarians who refuse to consider class as a variable. I don’t think I’ve run into any class-oriented folks who thought race should be ignored. But I would never argue that my experience is universal, and I’m all in favor of acknowledging complexity–I think identitarians love identity theories precisely because they deny complexity.

    Enough quibbling. Have a good weekend!

  37. I’m going with the nook version. User interface is my highest priority here. Thanks!

  38. The thing about identity politics is that, for the most part, they actually reinforce sexist and racist categories. Martin Luther King said: “Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin.” He wanted to be seen as a person, not as a “person of colour”. Identity politics is the opposite of that.

    In postcolonial studies – a field that has a lot of nonsense in it, but also some very useful theoretical tools – we speak of binary discourses, which impose false dichotomies on systems that would be much better understood as gradients. Straight versus Gay, Local versus Foreign, Us versus Them. The point is to show that ideas of “purity” fall apart when examined closely, and that these false divisions serve the interests of colonialism/imperialism. This doesn’t always take the form of openly negative stereotypes: thus Orientalism and the Noble Savage, which seem like positive notions, but which dehumanize their subjects by portraying them as innately different from other humans.

    However, even though proponents of identity politics often use precisely this type of academic language, they actually do nothing but exoticize themselves and reinforce the stereotypical ideas of race and gender – men this, women that, white people bad, black people good, etc. They don’t seek to break down these systems of thought, to demonstrate how false they are and thus cause the very foundations of bigotry to crumble; no, they cling to them and accuse anyone who disagrees of trying to “silence” or “police” them. And since they reject the idea of an objective reality, everything is seen to revolve around personal experience – there is no need to employ logic. People are to be judged by their skins and genitalia, not by the content of their character or the quality of their arguments.

    It is ironic that most proponents of identity politics find nationalism to be distasteful, because they’re basically nationalists themselves. Malcolm X observed that “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” As long as the majority of people uphold these arbitrary categories without being aware of their common interests and their common humanity, the system can keep exploiting them. Divide and conquer.

  39. Jonas, I’m fond of pointing out to antiracists that the reason the distribution of wealth in the US is racially disproportionate today is due to the lack of mobility in our class system. There is a very simple solution: share the wealth.

    Which would mean the end of capitalism.

    Very, very few of them respond to that with, yes, share the wealth.

  40. Heck, I’d be happy with NOT sharing the wealth if the wealth was at least going to the people that WORKED for it.

  41. Caliann: That’s un-American. What the hell are you, a communist?

  42. “Heck, I’d be happy with NOT sharing the wealth if the wealth was at least going to the people that WORKED for it.”

    Calliann, if we did it that way, how long do you think it would take before we had a bunch of people who were rich off the pay for their work. And if you want a job like that, sorry, you’re just not qualified. No, it’s only special people who are qualified for those jobs, and you just aren’t that kind of special person.

    Would it really change anything?

  43. skzb: Much agrememt on substance, less on language. As you note in the most rexcent bit on Engels Anti-Duhring, what science calls truth today is not what was true when a different set of materal facts become the norm. I seize upon this because of what Popper said about messianic moevments and Stalin said about omelettes and eggs.

    46 myself, I think, and seen some things. I’ve seen more O’Brien boot heel moments than anything else. If I couldn’t stay angry, I don’t know that I’d have any belief in a socialist next stage of development. I wasn’t attenpting to tweak you with that question, more badly making an oblique point that I have long seen evidence that you’re doing what you say artists outta be doing.

    And interesting that you would mention Tim Powers, about whom I would agree. Not being much of a scientist myself by inclination toward imprecision in thought desire for round edges to things, I find Jacqueline Carey to be the prototypically subversive writer in the genre today. Her sensualistic apprehension of the world on behalf of the reader (not only in the D’Angeline works but the two other novels as well) just hits me in the gut, so that I wake up and wonder why the hell things are the way they are when everyone is made miserable thereby. Can’t be a materialist if you can’t also potentially be a sensualist — otherwise the metarial world is just as unreal as the world of ideal thought.

    Having no particular faith in the impersonal forces of history, I would take things a step further and advocate a two prong war: one of position into the one of movement. Those members of the working class who apprehend their unqiquely powerful position within the class conflict engendered by captalism can take it to the state, while the likely more numerous group who feel less strongly motivated just as keenly aggrieved have the option to move into new institutions organized along socialist principles; for it is these very institutions which will be of most use to the winners of a war of movement. Elsewise, they can only attempt to reconstruct and reeingineer the institutions of the captalist state — and if theory does show us the idiocy of attempting to repurpose institutions a simple reading of history will.

    J Thomas: Alienation is a fundamental feature of capitalist economic relations, felt most acutely by the industrial working class because the nature of the alienation in that particular relation is much closer to the things that make us homo faber. Still, it is felt nonetheless in any capitalist relation, and as income inequality grows greater, that is an opportunity for socialist consciousness to grow where otherwise the soil, to borrow from skzb’s use of the metaphor, would otherwise be too infertile. Income inequality is the manure, if you will, that helps white collar workers more easily apprehend the depth of their own alienation.

    The ideas that have the power to unmoore an entire society correspond to a truth as experienced by people in their daily lives, the product of their interaction with the material world. No one believes in the Horatio Alger myth today, but half the country believes instead that an income of $25,000+ a year means you’re part of the upper class who gets taxed too much; and a significant portion of the other half has been captivated by a lottery system that works half as circus half as Aler myth,

  44. skzb

    “Can’t be a materialist if you can’t also potentially be a sensualist ” Oh, I like that. Feuerbach would have liked that.

    I’m going to have to think about your comments about Carey (whom I adore). I suspect you’re right.

  45. JP, thank you. I was thinking in terms of Durkheim, but Marx has his own meanings.

    So blue-collar workers get alienated partly because their “work” increasingly requires them to imitate machines, to do repetitive actions they are not particularly good at doing with none of their other abilities considered useful.

    And white collar workers don’t have it so much better. I talked to someone who worked at Barnes & Noble. A big part of her job was to rearrange the displays daily. The theory was apparently that if a customer walks in and sees the same display twice, it won’t register at all. But if the display is new and different the customer will see it. So they had a neverending struggle to change the displays to something new, anything different from what was already there.

    She was good at computer searches, and several customers sent messages to management telling them how helpful she had been. This offended the other peons who didn’t want anybody to look better. It appeared that the managers ignored employees who stood out in good ways, but there was the chance they would give somebody a chance to become a management trainee and a turncoat.

    Meanwhile each new management team had just one year to turn the store around before they would be replaced. Alienation all round.

    “No one believes in the Horatio Alger myth today,”

    They don’t? But it just makes sense that wealthy older homosexuals might sometimes give opportunities to honest poor boys who work hard.

    “but half the country believes instead that an income of $25,000+ a year means you’re part of the upper class who gets taxed too much; and a significant portion of the other half has been captivated by a lottery system that works half as circus half as Aler myth,”

    Was that supposed to be $250,000, or did you mean it the way you said it? I could see it either way.

    So OK, the society is pretty much unmoored. What next? It seems like after 10+ years of Depression a lot of Americans were glad to participate in WWII. Can the government offer them anything as much fun as that this time around?

  46. (@skzb: This is late, but thanks for the clarification!)

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