Against Identitarian and Generational Divide and Rule

Photo by Timothy Krause | CC BY 2.0

The Occupy Wall Street movement that spread across the country six-plus years ago lacked proper organization and strategy, but it deserves credit for having the right enemy – the corporate and financial ruling class.  The same can be said to no small degree about the sadly Democratic Party-captive Bernie Sanders campaign, which targeted “the billionaire class” as the main culprit behind the miseries of life in the brutally class-disparate United States. Both populist phenomena – Occupy and the Sanders “movement” – failed to build lasting people’s organizations and failed to properly situate the “One Percent”/“Billionaire Class” within the specific historical contexts of capitalist class rule and capitalism’s “evil twin” imperialism. Neither offered anything like a revolutionary alternative to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of wealth and empire. Still, both demonstrated a reasonable opening understanding of who calls the shots under what Noam Chomsky is right to sardonically call “really existing [U.S.] capitalist democracy, or RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked’”: the U.S. corporate and financial oligarchy.

Such basic and sound and basic grasp of class reality is sadly missing on much what passes for a Left in the U.S. today. That “left” focuses instead on oppressions and identities of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion/irreligion, immigration status, disability/ability, and the like.  In the place of the underlying conflict between the plutocratic and imperialist rich and the multi-cultural rest of us, it points the finger at white people/”white privilege,” males/male privilege, straight people/straight privilege, Christians/Christian chauvinism, the non-disabled, people who stand for the National Anthem, nativism, and so on.

Some parts of “the left” point the finger at all those who participate in industrialized society, who are accused of destroying livable ecology by consuming the Earth’s resources. That suggests a rather large enemy: most of humanity.

There’s even now a tendency in some corners of what passes for a left to turn to generational shaming and hate.  The real problem, I have been told in all seriousness, is Baby Boomers – that is, all U.S.-Americans born between 1946 and 1964.  This “Generation of Sociopaths” (the openly insane title of a book, penned by a Millennial venture capitalist, that purveys contempt for all those loathsome creatures who had the audacity to be delivered from their mother’s wombs in post-World War II America) is accused of looting the commons, perverting democracy, generating savage inequality, ruining the environment and more, all in service to it endless pursuit of narcissistic self-glorification. (My sincere apologies.  I was born in 1958).

There are four basic problems with these “left” narratives.  The first is a tendency toward absurdly broad generalization about the purported evil of massive demographic cohorts like U.S.-American whites, U.S.-American males, U.S.-American Christians, U.S.-American consumers, and U.S.-American “baby boomers.” The narratives render invisible the many U.S. whites (not enough, to be sure) who are non- and anti-racist, the many U.S. males (not enough) who are non- and anti-sexist, the many U.S. straights who are non- and anti-homophobic, the many U.S. Baby Boomers who are not narcissistic and sociopathic wealth- and power-accumulators, the many U.S.-Americans without handicaps who support disability rights, etc.

The second problem is a nasty and classist tendency to feed ugly, victim-blaming narratives about the many problems experienced by the nation’s increasingly desperate white working- class.  As Michael K. Smith noted on Counterpunch three and a half weeks ago:

Working class America people are for the first time dying at a younger age than their parents. The death rate of white working-class men and women increased sharply in the past generation, a reversal of the trend established over the three decades following the end of World War II. The opioid epidemic is a particularly grim feature of this tragic story…But in the optic of identity politics, white people are ‘privileged’ by definition, so downward mobility can only be the result of personal failure. In particular, if you are white and don’t have a college degree, and two-thirds of American adults do not, then you are not part of the good life and have only yourself to blame…As a result, the white working class is virtually invisible today. The movie “A Day Without A Mexican” attempted to show how indebted California is to immigrant labor, but there has been no parallel cinematic attempt to show how the white working class (largely) keeps our power lines working, our buses running, our sewers functioning, our trucks delivering goods to market. They also empty our bedpans, take our X-rays, watch our children, and respond to our 911 calls. Without them, the American Dream that they are increasingly excluded from could not exist. But there is virtually no public depiction of their plight. (emphasis added)

Is it any wonder that many working-class U.S. whites have tended to align with the Right, and not with middle- and upper-class liberals and lefties, who suggest that white working-class rubes have only themselves to blame for their struggles – and not with hyper-identity-politicized leftists who (Smith writes) “dismiss working class demands for jobs on the basis that it’s just ‘white privilege’”?

It is true that the Right reprehensibly offers “heartland” whites noxious scapegoats for their pain: immigrants, Blacks, and Muslims.  That is a reminder that the Right plays the identity card no less than does what passes for a political left in the U.S.  The point here, however, is that the Right is not blaming the white working-class itself. Much of what passes for “the left” is doing that, oddly and idiotically enough.

The third difficulty is an elementary failure to identify the actors with the most structurally and institutionally empowered agency behind contemporary evils.  That agency is clearly found among the nation’s corporate and financial ruling and managerial classes – a relatively tiny but egregiously over-empowered segment of the population that sits atop a national system of plutocratic rule and capitalist socio-pathology that dates back nearly two and a half centuries.  Neither U.S. whites nor U.S. males nor U.S. Christians nor U.S. straight people nor U.S. consumers nor U.S. nativists created the current neoliberal New Gilded Age of savage hyper-inequality, wherein the top 10th of the upper U.S. 1% owns as much wealth as the bottom U.S. 90% – this while half the U.S. populace is poor or near-poor and well more than a third of the nation’s Black and Native-American children live at less than the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Top members of the nation’s capitalist and allied professional classes did that. They did so in accord with a “free market” (state-capitalist) doctrine formulated in ruling-class circles, without the slightest input from ordinary white, male, straight, Christian U.S.-Americans.  Those actors have been very disproportionately but by no means exclusively white, male, straight, Christian, and so on, but it is absurd to see them as representative of all, most, or even much of white America, male America, Christian America, straight America, etc. It came from the ruling class top down.

Anti-Boomer Generational Warfare Idiots might want to check out the birthdates of some of the leading architects of the neoliberal New Gilded Age era:  David Rockefeller [1915], Lewis Powell [1907]; Paul Volcker [1927], Charles Koch [1935], Robert Rubin [1938], Milton Friedman [1912], James M. Buchanan [1919], Zbigniew Brzezinski [1928] …I could go on.

Were Iraq and Libya (2011) crushed by the Baby Boom generation?  No, they were attacked and devastated by a U.S. military command that oversees the armed wing of a U.S. global Empire that dates from the turn of the 20th century and that serves at the behest of a moneyed elite that goes back to the nation’s at once capitalist and imperial origins.

I am reminded here of the brilliant eco-Marxist environmental historian and geographer Jason W. Moore’s reflections on why he prefers the term “Capitalocene” over “Anthropocene” when it comes to naming the era in which human activities have altered Earth systems in ways that pose dire new challenges to livable ecology.  As Moore reminded radio interviewer Sasha Lilley a few years ago, “It was not humanity as whole that created …large-scale industry and the massive textile factories of Manchester in the 19th century or Detroit in the last century or Shenzhen today. It was capital.”

The concept of “the Anthropocene” has rich geological validity and holds welcome political relevance in countering the carbon-industrial complex’s denial of humanity’s responsibility for contemporary climate change. Still, we must guard against lapsing into the historically unspecific and class-blind uses of “anthros,” projecting the currently and historically recent age of capital onto the broad swath of human activity on and in nature. It is only during a relatively small slice of human history – roughly the last half-millennium – that humanity has been socially and institutionally wired to turn alter the planet, thanks to the profit system’s addiction to endless accumulation and “growth.”  If we must absurdly blame all “humanity,” let us at least acknowledge that this giant culprit is homo sapiens under the command of the capitalist class, a small portion of the species that has ruled for just a tiny portion of human history.

We need to be historically and social-structurally specific about where real power lies if we want to get to the root of contemporary evils.

The fourth problem goes beyond merely missing the mark of ruling-class culpability. “Left” identitarianism and generationalism deepen the power and impunity of the corporate and financial Few by pitting the Many against itself instead of those with real wealth and power. Speaking to the Real News Network in 2013,Chris Hedges reflected on how U.S. corporate-managed major party electoral politics is an elite-run sport in which the citizenry qua electorate is identity-played by a moneyed elite that pulls the strings behind the scenes:

Both sides of the political spectrum are manipulated by the same forces. If you’re some right-wing Christian zealot in Georgia, then it’s homosexuals and abortion and all these, you know, wedge issues that are used to whip you up emotionally. If you are a liberal in Manhattan, it’s—you know, ‘They’ll be teaching creationism in your schools’ or whatever. … Yet in fact it’s just a game, because whether it’s Bush or whether it’s Obama, Goldman Sachs always wins. There is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs.

It’s nothing new, of course.  Ruling classes have been playing the game of divide-and-rule since the dawn of class rule.  North American (like European) labor, social, and political history is rife with stories of capitalists and their agents working cleverly to destroy and pre-empt multi-cultural/racial/ethnic/gender/national working- – and lower-class commonality and struggle by cultivating and exploiting intra-proletarian divisions of race, ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, region, religion, party, ideology, culture, and more. The fostering, encouragement, manipulation, and exploitation of working-class fragmentation is part of capital’s longstanding war on popular solidarity. (That is history that the neoliberal identitarian Ta-Nehisi Coates ignores because it does not fit his “Afro-pessimist” determination to blame the vast and supposedly unmovable and flatly racist U.S. “white tribe,” not the capitalist and imperial system, for the plight of poor Black Americans.) It is foolish beyond words for “the left” to play along with this deadly, ancient, Machiavellian, and top-down pastime.

Ruling-class strategy aside, capitalism – the system ruled by the capitalist “elite” – has largely brought modern racism, ethno-centrism, nationalism, nativism, sexism, able-ism into being. It has done this through its relentless, accumulation-mad, and imperialist assault on the domestic and global commons, which has thrown generation upon generation of property-less and desperate people into conflict with each other (as well as with propertied and moneyed elites) for scarce opportunities and resources.  It has done it also through its endless pursuit of cheap labor power at home and abroad.

Am I saying that a real Left would drop concerns with the real and specific lived and living oppressions of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, age, and the like, subordinating everything to class struggle and overt anti-capitalism?  No, of course not. Racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, age-ism, able-ism, and the like exist, with their own horrid internal logics and terrible consequences for their most immediate victims and for the projects of popular unity and social democracy. They must be acknowledged, called out and challenged both (a) on their own terms and (b) in connection with the broader and essential task of building a revolutionary and democratic movement and party for majority/working-class power. The problem with much of what passes for a left in the U.S. today is that it doesn’t seem to want, or know how, to supplement (a) with (b).  It gets stuck on Identity and thus ends up missing the ruling-class mark while working to deepen the power of the ruling class in ways that would make Machiavelli blush.  This may not be the intent but it’s the outcome. Goldman Sachs always wins.

More than I’ve cared to admit in past writings, Identity is a powerful and dangerous drug.  I’ve seen it again and again: good progressive people with good intentions think they can use it responsibly and (to use a recently developed “left” and foundation-backed phrase) in “intersectional” ways supposed to include opposition to class injustice, understood as one among the many interrelated oppression structures.  Again, and again, however, class is dismissed and even painted out as racist by arrogant, highly “educated” professional-class liberals, leaving much of the nation’s vast white working-class absurdly prone to Identitarian manipulation of the ugly “Right” kind. This in turn deepens the “left’s” attachment to classless Identity, hereby feeding the masters’ Machiavellian game. It’s a vicious circle.  Too many people on “the left” can’t seem to handle the drug.

At the risk of sounding doctrinaire, I think it is long past time for leftists and liberals and other progressive to step away from the Identity bong and join a 12-step eco-Marxist program that makes a higher power out of socialist solidarity for the restoration and elevation of the commons and the common good over and against the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of wealth and empire, who have now put the entire, multiply Identity-marked species at grave risk of eco-cidal extinction.

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Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).