It took most of two centuries to build the Liberal-Democratic state, to the specs we typically use to explain it. And less than 40 years for its tacit demolition. Some of us, who recall fewer bruises from lawless capital than from Capitalism’s well-organized, state institutions, even welcomed getting kicked-out of what we considered a bad home (literally as of 2008). As the state discards its civic obligations we obediently pick up the tab, from paying for basic health and education, to beating the drum for war. Instead of despair, a revived sense of ‘publicness’ esteemed us, reductively, as the 99%. Now, as our patience for Neoliberalism wears thin, a ‘neo-nationalism’ has peaked some imaginations. In response to Trump’s graceless efforts to revive white-male exclusivity, Liberals have proffered a strawman of their own, embracing a new, broader ‘inclusiveness’.
To (past) solidarity we owe the civil and labor rights and public welfares that made nationhood, if not great, at least bearable. But it required expanding the state, not gutting it. Instead, whether making America great again or great for the first time, both parties govern by wrecking ball, with the scrap going to Wall Street. Unable or unwilling to stem or budding kleptocracy, Liberals have made a separate peace, (ostensibly) creating room for us within Capitalism, instead of attacking its contradictions.
Yet, nationalism’s success was never based on egalite or social justice, but on surplus production. Contrarily, it served elites by diverting what may have otherwise become class-based solidarity. Capitalism required a simultaneously strong and weak caretaker; able to both mobilize and restrain mass-labor; strong enough to secure the Capitalist’ advantage, but pliant enough to maintain it. Despite the obvious contradiction, it claimed both rich and poor should pursue the same goal, even when it yielded vastly different outcomes. It was a racket, but defensible, due to its immense productivity, presuming the yield would not be just in private dollars, but in broadly-useful development. Ergo, it promised the working-class a softer form of abuse than they could expect from unofficiated Capitalism. And to be fair, it did allow for some gradual amelioration for the working-class. But with surplus, rather than more-equal, shares. Through affluence, not democracy.
Adhering the masses depended, in equal part, on a collective task, and on some evidence of return. In which case America, the nation, had ran its course by the 1970s, when imports surpassed exports, and the principal ‘civic’ duty shifted from production to consumption. (Allegedly this was still the case in 2001, when George Bush proclaimed shopping as a means to fight terrorism, while him and his set to toppling America, the empire.) Still, since what exactly the public did or received was always somewhat hypothetical, the nation lumbered on. But now a pressing environmental crisis means the liberal-class, whose sole civic duty was to unsparingly consume, has an added and contrary responsibility not to. Moreover, if consumption and preservation are conflicting national duties, save our being vessels for debt, neo-nationalism carries no responsibilities. Hence, without mounting waste to paper over its contradictions, America has to rely solely on ‘we the people’ for its legitimacy. Itself a contradiction.
By tying popular-class’ hopes for prosperity to the success of the state, nationalism had welcomed, sotto voce, class within popular rule. ‘Meritocracy’ imbued America with a notion of Liberal-class stewardship. But it also emphasized nationalism’s lack of space for minorities. While we are right to fear the erosion of the middle-class, it is because they act as litmus for the larger political-economy (and because we are still slow to take cues from the poor). But the oft-cited reason -their political clout- is farce. The atomic family was and remains a steward (and invention) of Capitalism, not Democracy. Middle-class sentiment ignores that the surrounding poverty is not simply a failure or byproduct of Capitalism, but also a strategy. Hence, the key to a healthier democracy is not a healthier middle-class, but a less-unhealthy poor. And selling Liberal-class values to the poor has been anything but democratizing.
Identity politics, born of this, attacked Capitalism -and by extension nationalism’s- inequities in stirring ways. We owe to it the Left’s few and often pyric victories of recent years. But decoupled from economics, identity politics, progressivism in general, looks less like democracy, and more like social capital (social in lieu of material, no less). Where the nation-state promised affluence instead of equality, ‘neo-nationalism’ promotes, rather than engages, sub-groups, and the lower-class, more broadly. In either case ‘conscientious capitalism’ erodes democracy.
If a larger sliver of the Capitalist pie, and not dismantling, or at least reigning in, Capitalism, is at all the goal, identity politics, progressivism, itself, risks being co-opted. Consider for example, the internet, where many of our ‘democratic’ hopes now lie. Like writing and print before, it democratizes participation on an unprecedented scale, but it centralizes control. It is an invaluable tool, but if we mistake it for democracy, the right to self-determination is effectively reduced to the right to access. This guts the very definition of democracy as it pertains to the rights of citizens. It is to beg consideration rather than demand justice- ‘inclusiveness’, rather than solidarity. But justice, recall, including public health and welfare, is not a courtesy. It is the minimal payment for our obeying laws that obviously favor the Capitalists.
Until now Capitalism has survived by making sure we haggled over the wrong questions; ‘nation’ instead of ‘class’, us or them, recognition when what we need is solidarity, for examples. We should dwell less on negotiating these boundaries, and think instead why the rest is so unlivable. Otherwise, should we ever get around to attacking Capitalism; we’ll have only capitalists at the helm.