We are either a melting pot wherein “all men are created equal” – the ideal of our Founders for which we have long striven . . . – or we are to become a multicultural nation of pigeon-holed special interests. We are to become a nation where groups are encouraged to remain apart, defining themselves by their victim class before defining themselves as Americans. . . .
It is inevitable that . . . a melting pot of equals or a multicultural morass of victim groups . . . will gain ascendance in America. I have long felt that we are at a crossroads in our nation for precisely this reason, and that the ramifications of how we decide this issue will be existential.
Wolf Howling, Standing at the Crossroads; Identity Politics, Multiculturalism & the Melting Pot, 8 Sept 2008
Like a broken clock, I am right twice a day. Three days short of nine years ago, I pointed out in the post quoted above that a vote for Obama would inevitably mean that identity politics would come to fully dominate the progressive left. That was and still is an existential issue because we are the single most diverse nation on this earth. There is probably not a single nationality, race, or religion on this earth that is not represented in the United States. If we are not a melting pot, all with equal veneration for the ideals of liberty, freedom property rights and equal justice before the law that drove our founding, then we will inevitably become balkanized and our nation fall to ruin. Period.
But our progressive left is in fact trying to balkanize us for their own political gain. That is short sided indeed, for a victory of identity politics in this country would mean the death, not the ascendance, of today’s progressive left. And it would certainly be the end of the lily white prog leadership of the movement, from Liewatha to Bernie to Chuckie and Crazy Nancy.
Put simply, the progressive movement is the Western variant of the socialist / communist movement. In this country, however, the progressive movement has deviated from orthodox communism as articulated by the movement’s most notable philosopher, Karl Marx. Marx divided the world into two – and only two – camps, the oppressed and the oppressors as defined by their relative socio-economic status. Marx believed that a final conflict between the two camps was inevitable and that the oppressed would emerge victorious. When that happened, there would be no more socio-economic class, as all would be equal, and thus a communist nation would achieve national unity.
Our modern progressives have largely eschewed the socio-economic foundation of communism and have instead grafted Marx’s oppressed-oppressor matrix over-top of permanent genetic traits (in addition to religions). Once the progs achieve ascendance here, it will by definition be the end to national unity. The individual victim groups will inevitably seek to separate themselves from society on one hand, while on the other hand, attempt to dominate all other oppressed groups to the extent they attempt to participate in a common society at all. We can see both happening in real time with radicalized blacks in particular, including their use of “intersectionality” to claim the victim’s sweepstakes.
I was surprised to see my thoughts largely echoed the other day in an article in Salon, Time To Give Up On Identity Politics: It’s Dragging the Progressive Agenda Down, by Anis Shavani. Interestingly, Shavini comes at his critique of modern progressive politics from the standpoint of a person who has embraced classical Marxism.
As a threshold matter, Shivani gets some things in his article very wrong. He credits Trump’s victory to the rise of a white nationalist movement rather than people voting their pocketbooks and dissatisfaction with eight years of Obama’s failed policies. Shivani further implies that all white Trump voters somehow woke up to their inner racist in 2016 and he uses Richard Spencer, leader of a movement that numbers in the hundreds at most, as being an exemplar of the millions of Trump voters. Shivani posits that progressive identity politics has caused that awakening. Of all the sins of progressive identity politics, that might be the only one of which it is not currently guilty, though that may one day change.
Shivani’s screed is outlandish libel of the worst sort — or to put it another way, it is exactly the type of drivel one would expect to find in Salon. But for all Shivani gets wrong about non-progressives in this country, his criticism of what has become of the progressive movement in this country is quite honest and, in several instances, insightful.
Shivani begins with a short history of what he believed defined American left of center politics in the years before the progressive movement wholly adopted identity politics. According to Shivani, the old left fully embraced the “melting pot” theory, not merely for this country, but globally. One can well imagine him smoking a joint around a circle of guitar wielding stoners while singing “Kumbaya” and dreaming of a benign one world government. That aside, the primary concern of the pre-identity politics left was still socio-economic, or as Shivani words it, “we dreamed of utopian solutions to the kind of economic serfdom that had arisen in 1980s America.” Then Shivani ironically claims
We were proud inheritors of the Enlightenment: That was the intellectual legacy we had to improve on, it was to be our perpetual lodestar, if we were not to be trapped in particularistic thought that could have no good results for anyone. True, Allan Bloom had rung the alarm bells not long ago over the new conformity, but we felt sure that intellectual prowess would reign supreme in the end.
Shivani defines the Enlightenment Period by the values at which it ultimately arrived: “peace, democracy and universal rights.” I agree, but what Shivani misses is that those Enlightenment ideals came as a result of an objective search for truth; those ideals did not precede it. People today who embrace all powerful government and socialist economics as societal goods capable of delivering “peace, democracy and universal rights” have to deliberately ignore the last century of history. Doing so is wholly in opposition to the single most fundamental Enlightenment ideal, the objective search for truth. When that happens, you shoot for Utopia and end up with Venezuela, Cuba, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Cambodia. But let’s leave that aside, as at least Shavini embraces the concept of the Enlightenment, even if he fails in its application. That is exponentially better than today’s progressive left who explicitly eschew the Enlightenment, embracing in its stead Foucault and post-modernism, substituting their fact free narratives for objective truth.
Shavini begins his criticism of identity politics by describing it as a “pernicious ideology.” He raises five points, his first being that identity politics is aimed at achieving moral and cultural victories, not political victories. That might seem a wise strategy, since, as Andrew Breitbart opined, “politics is downstream from culture.” True enough if you win the culture wars. But the 2016 election showed that enough Americans in enough states simply are not buying into the cultural values of identity politics, with that being disastrous for the left. Shavini notes that reality, but blames it on progressives turning away from an emphasis on Marxist wealth redistribution.
The 2016 election was the ultimate crash of identity politics, of course, played out to the maximum on both sides. The irrational “alt-right,” based on white identity politics, had it out with the irrational alt-left, by which I mean not what neoliberal Democrats and Trump mean by it, but exactly the opposite: The identity politics-driven official Democratic Party messaging, which relies on magic and charisma and delusional thinking to bring about racial harmony, just as the “alt-right” does on the other side.
What could be a greater indictment of identity politics than the utter hollowing-out of the Democratic Party, its rank electoral defeat at every level of government, . . .
The result is the evisceration of the Democrats as a party with even a rhetorical claim to the working class, as it has become a club for egotistical, self-branding urbanites who pay lip service to identity politics while having no sympathy for real wealth redistribution. . . .
Shivani also has choice words for Obama, concluding that “the color of his skin provided immunity from real criticism.” Very true indeed. More particularly, the color of Obama’s skin allowed him to get away with unconstitutional and extraconstituional actions that would have ended in impeachment for just about anyone else as President. Nixon had to be spinning in his grave as he contemplated what Obama got away with while in office.
Shivani’s second point, that the focus on identity completely displaces a focus on economics, is merely the crie de couer of a committed classical Marxist. But in raising that point, Shivani observes:
Liberals seem to be trying to cure racism at the metaphysical level — in people’s hearts and souls — instead of limiting politics to where it should be limited, i.e., the arena of democratic policymaking. But this can only come about when politics becomes again the explicit target of attention, so that obstacles to democracy — from gerrymandering to money in politics, from voting machine unreliability to widespread disenfranchisement — can be overcome.
. . . If [modern progressives] think of inequality, they think in terms of racial inequality as the fount of all inequality, not the concrete economic terms in which equality can be achieved. Partly this is because of the institutional context in which modern identity-politics warriors operate; for them to ask for economic equality aside from identity would be to challenge the core of the institutions that patronize and legitimize them. Identity politics, it should be noted, is not an outsider’s movement; it is the ultimate insider’s game. . . .
That is a brilliant analysis. Thomas Sowell for one has written tomes on how blacks were achieving parity through economic gains in the early half of the 20th century, until early progressives sought to blunt their gains with minimum wage and other laws, then later progressives sought to put them on the government dole. And identity politics truly is an “insider’s game.” It is not grass roots; rather, it is embraced by the progressive left through government and academia in order to keep blacks and other minorities voting as a block. It is the foundation of prog political power. Indeed, one could argue that without identity politics and blacks in particular voting at a rate of 90% for the progressive left, the progressives would never win another election. That nuance, though, seems to be lost on Mr. Shivani.
Shivani’s third point is that “identity politics always breeds its equal and opposite reaction.” It could, but it has not yet. What it has bred is anger by people who are not racist or misogynistic being told that if they do not buy into prog victimhood narratives, then in fact they are irredeemably “____-ist” and “deplorable.” But that is not “white nationalism,” nor does it foreshadow whites signing up as a block for the KKK.
Leaving that aside, Shivani, in explaining his third point, comes up with these insights:
Liberals have been on a relentless mission to transform people’s souls — to rid them of impure ideas about race and sexuality . . .
. . . Whenever a misguided movement tries to alter people’s thoughts and intentions, rather than limiting itself to people’s performance and action in the transparent democratic arena, then totalitarianism is the necessary result. Even when we dream of an anarchist utopia, we do not try to alter people’s souls, we aim to alter economic arrangements in such a way as to allow people the maximum possible room for freedom. We cannot be readers and interpreters of people’s hearts and minds; such a venture has no business in politics.
I could not agree more.
Lastly, Shivani makes the exact same point that I made almost nine years ago, that identity politics is self destructive:
[Progressives] are rhetorically dedicated to pursuing a goal which can never be realized in practice, i.e., the complete self-realization of each identity. This should be evident across many different dimensions. The more a particular group becomes validated in the broader culture’s eyes, the less it feels satisfied with the recognition, and the more it feels it needs more of that rush of acknowledgment and credit based on identity alone. There is no end to it. . . .
. . . .
Identity politics was conceived and executed from the beginning as a movement of depoliticization [from socio-economic concerns]. Feminism has become severed from class considerations, so that for the most part it has become a reflection of what liberal identitarians themselves like to call “white privilege.” Feminism, like the other identity politics of the moment, is cut off from solidarity with the rest of the world, or if it deals with the rest of the world can only do so on terms that must not invalidate the American version of identity politics.
For example, because all identities are equally sacrosanct, we must not critique other cultures from an Enlightenment perspective; to each his own, and race is destiny, etc. . . .
To conclude, identity politics — in all the forms it has shown up, from various localized nationalisms to more ambitious fascism — desires its adherents to present themselves in the most regressive, atavistic, primitive form possible. The kind of political communication identity politics thrives on is based on maximizing emotionalism and minimizing rationality. Therefore, the idea of law that arises when identity politics engenders a reaction is one that severs the natural bonds of community across differences (which is the most ironic yet predictable result of identity politics) and makes of the law an inhuman abstraction.
Or, in other words, that the end result of identity politics is balkanization of our society into groups that cannot coexist and that operate on emotional narratives, not rational fact. Shivani concludes by likening this situation to “the indoctrination in Soviet Russia in the 1930s,” one that can only end when some “catastrophe . . . lays waste to everything.” I would posit that the “catastrophe” of which Shivani speaks would not be external. It would come about internally, should a true believer in identity politics ever take power in this country.
I never thought I would have points of agreement with a true Marxist. Live and learn.