Class Dismissed: Identity Politics to the Front of the Line

The Eggs in Clinton’s Political Basket and the Potential for Radical Transformation

Political discourse in America still takes place within the New Deal/Great Society (ND/GS) framework that dominated the political arena from the end of the Second World War up to the mid-seventies. The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ were central within this settlement. Orthodox politicos who inform themselves through NPR and other mainstream venues occupy a static world. They do not think historically nor do they conceptualize major institutions, like capitalism, in developmental or evolutionary terms. Hence, most of your liberal friends have no idea what the term ‘neoliberalism’ means.

The Obsolescence of the Liberal-vs-Conservative Distinction

The typical American seems unaware that the political-economic arrangement in place for about thirty years after the Second World War, i.e. the legacy of the New Deal and Great  Society (ND/GS), has been repudiated by elites. While government social programs were virtually unknown before the Roosevelt administration, they came to be accepted  -albeit grudgingly by business-  as a permanent part of the political-economic landscape after the War. Americans took for granted government’s ongoing proliferation of programs intended to offer working people some protection from the depredations of the market, in the form of basic social programs like Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid. Government also offered guarded support of labor unions with for-the-most-part enforcement of labor law. And, no less significant, there was an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies limiting the freedom of business to decide for itself how business was to be done. For the first time in the nation’s history, the class divide was somewhat narrowed. This is what postwar liberalism accomplished. (Europeans’ social wage during this period was far greater than what was offered Americans, but the vast U.S. majority knew virtually nothing of what was taking place in Europe, or anywhere else abroad for that matter.) Americans welcomed the U.S. “welfare state.” After all, it did make possible a degree of material security hitherto unknown to Americans. That ND/GS arrangement is now being dismantled.

The enthusiasts of the moribund postwar institutional framework were called “liberals.” Those who rejected this kind of government activity and hailed the efficiency and discipline of the “free” market were called “conservatives.”

Neoliberalism is No Part of the Liberal Hipoisie’s Political Cosmos

Much of what makes discursive interaction with mainstream Americans so persistently unproductive is the background assumption of orthodox thinking that the ND/GS institutional framework is still in effect. There is no recognition that what used to be called “postwar liberalism” is regarded by economic elites and the major Parties as, in Obama’s words in The Audacity of Hope, “the old-time religion.” The fetishism of the laissez-faire market is in the process of restoration; neoliberalism is now the order of the day. State reallocation of resources to labor independent of the price mechanism, i.e. the market, and regulation, are headed for the political graveyard. There is nothing left for liberals and conservatives to be liberal or conservative about.

The transition from postwar liberalism to neoliberalism began in the mid-1970s. The warning signs soon became unmistakable. Around 1975 union membership and power began a steep decline at the same time as the wage-productivity gap began rapidly to widen. With wages falling ever-farther behind productivity increases, inequality inexorably widened. With collective bargaining on the skids, the median wage began what was to become an unheard of forty-one year decline, with no end in sight. Inequality is now at a historic high and wages have never been lower since the Great Depression. It’s a different world from what many of us grew up in during the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and the first half of the ‘70s. But you’d never know it talking politics with e.g. the Democratic faithful.

The Need to Propagate a New Political Cosmology

Political exchange between informed radicals and most Americans runs up against a seemingly insuperable obstacle. Two incompatible political-economic cosmologies and corresponding conceptual frameworks collide. It is as if Aristotle were to request of Newton that he clarify his conception of motion, or force, or mass. But, in order that Aristotle comprehend Newton’s response, Newton must employ the language and concepts of Aristotelian physics: prime matter, substantial form, final causality and the rest. Can’t be done. And in politics, there is not only conceptual incommensurability, but normative dissonance as well. The liberal conception of equality is quite different from the radically egalitarian notion.

This is no mere matter of “difference of opinion” or opposing beliefs. What separates genuine egalitarians and democrats from the mainstream goes much deeper. Political education is an essential part of organizing and movement building. It is not sufficient to expose people to more and different facts and “information.” That’s necessary, but not sufficient. It’s about a very different way of thinking about politics and economics, including that we inhabit a very different world, a different political universe, from what the mainstream political commentariat put across in every word they utter.

Identity Politics Obscures Neoliberalism and Class Politics

The Democrats are attempting to enshrine a post-ND/GS way of thinking about what’s most important politically. A salient demographic fact has enabled the Party to believe that its abandonment of political-economic and class issues like poverty, inequality and the support of unions will not affect their aspirations at the polls. The Party’s constituency is growing faster than the Republican Party’s. Minority populations, single women and immigrant groups are growing faster than the white male base of the Republican Party. Democrats conclude that no matter what, they have a permanent head start. That no Democratic presidential candidate since Walter Mondale has campaigned for full employment is not seen by the Party as a political liability. Even a faltering economy, a traditional kiss of death for presidential candidates, does not seem to have punished the Party. Obama was reelected in 2012 when the unemployment rate averaged 9 percent. Since an anemic recovery with rising unemployment was no obstacle to electoral success, the Democrats are convinced that need not address economic issues nor direct attention to the business interests which finance them. They need only address what they take to be their decisive constituencies. Enter identity politics as the predominant way of political thinking.

What has taken the place of class issues are so-called “social issues.” Identity politics is foregrounded among “liberal” elites. We find a perfect illustration of the explicit and unabashed use of identity politics to misdirect attention from economic and class issues in a Hillary Clinton campaign speech at a February rally in Henderson Nevada.

In what was both an attempt to undermine Sanders and a statement of Democratic priorities Clinton portrayed Sanders’s call to break up the big banks as emblematic of any claim that economic issues are central to Americans’ concerns. She plugged herself as “the only candidate who’ll take on every barrier to progress.” Economy-related class issues are not, it seems, related to such barriers.

“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton asked her fans. There followed a series of rhetorical questions. The first contained a big lie and a screaming irrelevance:

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow – and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will – would that end racism?”  Not at all. Nor would it bring back the swing bands.

She continued: “Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

This kind of appeal may well contribute to a Clinton victory in November. But there is reason to believe that the strategy is on the verge of losing its effectiveness. I’m convinced that a strong case can be made that the established powers have provided, in the course of moving steadily away from ND/GS to neoliberalism, as-yet-unprocessed materials useful for making class issues once again meaningful to many Americans. It’s easy to forget that the political education I claimed to be essential to effective movement building appeals to peoples’ experience, and not only to good radical arguments and relevant factual information.

The majority of Americans have experienced, often brutally, the ongoing immiseration, the increasing material insecurity, imposed by neoliberal capitalism. And many are aware that these matters are almost entirely absent from mainstream discourse, and from the current electoral campaign. Neoliberalization requires the abolition of class issues from political debate. But with the decline of postwar liberalism, the retrenchment of social programs and the decline of union power, the class divide is now as conspicuous as it has been in the past 120 years. And it is growing. All this has been backgrounded in contemporary political discussion.

It has not been backgrounded in the experience of most Americans. As many commentators have noted, it is the frustration of struggling Americans, especially in the light of Obama’s mendacious 2008 campaign promises, none of which have been kept, that has generated the angry disappointment of Sanders’s and many of Trump’s enthusiasts. A Clinton presidency will magnify the exasperation. The preoccupation with Trump will have disappeared. Popular mistrust will be magnified and the black population might not be as forgiving of Clinton as they have been of Obama. Mounting overseas aggression and the continuing deterioration of most workers’ economic security could easily make her a one-term president. It is also likely to breed another maniacally authoritarian demagogue, possibly not as buffoonish as Trump. His or her appeal may well be more compelling than Trump’s after four years of Clinton. Historically, this is how fascism grows in the wake of capitalist crisis.

Should this scenario play out, I can foresee no alternative other than the counterweight of a movement better organized and more politically explicit than Occupy was, and savvy enough to seize the day and build on and magnify the potentially transformative disappointment and frustration that motivated the Sanders and some of the Trump crowd. The educational moment to induce people to a new way of thinking about politics will have been put in place. The irrelevance of the liberal-vs-conservative business will be more conspicuous than ever. The capture of the State by finance capital will be virtually undisguised. The fruitlessness of lesser-evil thinking could be made as legitimate a topic of discussion among very many Americans as socialism is now. Who would have imagined five years ago that it was remotely possible that socialism would become a feature of daily discourse? The undermining of lesser-evil thinking would be monumentally corrosive of the entire way of thinking that undergirds taking capitalism and the Party system for granted. The door would be open to questioning the kind of society that always offers a choice between unacceptables. We’ve never had an historical opportunity like this.

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Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy and Philosophy at The Evergreen State College. His website is: www.alannasser.org.  His latest book is Overripe Economy: American Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy. He can be reached at: nassera@evergreen.edu

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