Two related tendencies have sown confusion over the crisis of liberalism that continues to unfold across the U.S. and Europe. On the one hand, the forces of the political right are ascendant. Right-wing leaders are being elected as an apparent rebuke of the serial failures of neoliberalism. On the other, the will of the polity is increasingly irrelevant to the formulation and concerns of nominally public policies.
In the U.S., the political establishment continues to put forward candidates which its functionaries appear to believe can best perpetuate this illusion of democracy. Befuddlement at the rise of reactionary forces is met with an increasingly strident insistence that there is nothing to react against, that all is well if people would only shut up and follow the directions of their betters.
Despite the conspicuous failures of the existing order here and abroad— a series of murderous vanity wars intermingled with economic crises of increasing scale and scope, the seemingly unstoppable trajectory toward full-blown environmental crisis, nuclear weapons that serve as background psychic violence and political economy that is organized to milk the polity dry at every opportunity, the political powers-that-be seek to perpetuate this radically dysfunctional status quo.
In this environment, the rise of illiberal, reactionary forces seems not only predictable, but to be the ugly cousin of the neoliberal resolve that all is well. Adding insult to injury is the insistence that the neoliberal order, the bi-partisan governance that fronts for the oligarchs, bears no responsibility for the consequences of four decades of neoliberal rule. It is the polity’s unwillingness to comport with the dictates of rule by and for the oligarchs that is the point of contestation, goes the chide.
An entire functionary class that smiled and nodded approvingly when Bill Clinton launched his 1992 presidential bid at Stone Mountain, Georgia, birthplace of the twentieth century KKK, while standing in front of neatly ordered black prisoners, is mystified by the re-emergence of white nationalism. And while the Clinton / Biden 1994 Crime Bill wasn’t exactly a white nationalist manifesto, it inflicted more racially targeted human misery than the late twentieth century Klan ever could have hoped for.
If enacting punitive measures against the poor is separable from the full throated and bi-partisan endorsement of the quasi-market— heads, the rich win, tails, everyone else loses, economics of neoliberalism, where is the evidence? And how, precisely, does this con recover from the panicked giveaways of 2009 when the ‘runway was foamed’ with the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of working people and poor to prevent oligarchs from losing their fifth yacht or their seventh vacation home?
The alternative to the vile misdirection of xenophobia would be for the oligarchs and their servants in the political class to confess that their faux-market economics— trade agreements that created the asymmetry of mobile capital and immobilized labor, was a tragic mistake that displaced millions of workers for the benefit of the oligarchs. With honest accounting of what happened and who is responsible ‘off the table,’ xenophobia appears to be the preferred tactic of the oligarchs.
The farce of Democratic Party functionaries shouting ‘racist’ at the thoroughly predictable fruit of their labors has subsided with the political ascendance of Joe Biden to complicate the line between white nationalism and liberal loathing of the audience it helped create. The neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville were / are white nationalists. But what does this make professional-class liberals who supported the Clinton / Biden 1994 ‘Crime’ Bill under feigned ignorance of its racial subtext?
The sub-textual connotation of the term ‘dog whistle’ behind the Crime Bill doesn’t do justice to the social violence of its facts. The subject-object relation of the political panderer to his / her audience carries with it the moral formulation 1) we agree that overt racism is objectionable because 2) if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be opaque expressing it. But how is this not to assert that race represents a real, as opposed to manufactured, line of division, something akin to the white nationalist’s premise of its essential character?
The dog-whistle is, to the extent that there is an audience for it in the terms given, politically motivated misdirection. The speaker won’t be explicit if the audience is clear as to the true meaning of what is being said. But isn’t this even more insidious than the straightforward (if ontologically implausible) claim of essential difference by race? The rhetorical layer of ‘crime’ gives a social logic to a host of punitive consequences. With the Crime Bill, the Clintons and Joe Biden grievously harmed the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of human beings.
There is, of course, a long history behind this relation of law and racial repression. Law, the legislative, judicial, policing and penal functions, was used to maintain the institution of slavery and later, following the Civil War, to recreate its broad contours for purposes of economic taking. Convict leasing, Black Codes, Jim Crow and mass incarceration are part of an historical trajectory. However, to the point made by Adolph Reed, degree matters— current conditions aren’t analogous to those of the Jim Crow South or slavery.
But with this history behind it, what legitimate basis is there for the sub-textual use of a relation of race to criminality? As the patriarch of modern political marketing, did Bill Clinton really believe that there was no racial subtext to his vile stunt at Stone Mountain? More pointedly, through promoting the compound storyline of race and crime, how is Mr. Clinton not promoting a slightly more complex, and insidious, version of white nationalist ‘difference?’ Alternatively, if crime has a social basis, why would proposed solutions be punitive rather than restorative?
All of this could be ancient history if it didn’t exist at the center of current travails. Without an accounting of the failures of liberalism, these compound storylines from history provide the rhetorical core of contemporary politics. It is hardly coincidental that Joe Biden is 1) a dedicated corporatist, 2) a long-time purveyor of racist tropes, 3) the Democrats latest, if improbable, hope for restoration of the neoliberal order.
Joe Biden opposed the racial integration of public schools. He wrote most of the Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill. He was an enthusiastic proponent of NAFTA. He joined the Clintons to support George W. Bush’s catastrophic war against Iraq. And he supported the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) until the very end. He authored many, if not most, of the policies of modern liberalism / neoliberalism that are being contested.
By putting Mr. Biden forward as the establishment presidential candidate, the Democrats affirm that they see themselves well-served by reactionary illiberalism. Otherwise, their rhetorical rejections of white nationalism and xenophobia could be supported by robust critiques of their own policies of the last four decades and a well-considered political program to counter their consequences could be put forward. But Mr. Biden is the antithesis of both.
The Democrats co-invented identity politics to defer blame for the consequences of their policies. If they cared about combatting racism and xenophobia, none of the Democratic Party establishment would be considered for public office. The rhetorical distinction between dog whistles and white nationalism begs the question of what objective dog whistles are intended to convey. These aren’t precisely the same. Dog whistles are more insidious in that they include compound storylines (e.g. race and criminality) that are more onerous to disentangle.
White nationalism is frightening for its direct ties to the history of racialized violence. However, the scientific racism that served as the ‘natural’ basis for alleged racial difference used by the Nazis was an American invention. Its proponents were the professional class of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And the intersection of these two tendencies, the brutal, barely reflexive racial loathing of the Stone Mountain KKK and the educated, liberal use of racist subtexts to facilitate ‘respectable’ racism amongst the modern professional class, is the apparent point of Bill Clinton’s 1992 photo op.
At what point is politics about leading rather than manipulating people via a shared vocabulary? Phrased differently, how is this shared vocabulary not tied to consensus around the logic it represents? So-and-so understands the logic of racism well enough to convey it through coded language and still chooses to perpetuate it for political gain. Why not give his audience the benefit of the doubt and use this understanding to challenge the logic?
The broader backdrop of an ascendant political right in Europe emerges from a similar unwillingness / inability of European liberals / neoliberals to atone for the consequences of their policies and develop alternative political programs. Xenophobia is portrayed as arising from the shadows of twentieth-century European history as a moral failing of the polity rather than the manufactured, and predictable, political crisis that it is.
As with the American refugee ‘crisis’ arising from U.S. military interventions in Central America, the refugee crisis across Europe is the product of American / NATO led military incursions in the region as well as economic dislocations emerging from the structure of the EU (European Union). One reason why George H.W. Bush decided against occupying Iraq after the first Gulf War was for fear of destabilizing the region. This fear was realized when George W. Bush, with widespread support from the Democratic Party establishment, launched the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq.
Furthermore, as has been addressed ad infinitum over the last decade, through the creation of the EU, member nations exchanged fiscal sovereignty for membership in a trading bloc. When crisis struck, the inability of member nations to respond with fiscal stimulus meant that ‘externally’ imposed austerity was the only alternative. This flawed structure supported the interests of some member nations (Germany) against those of the European periphery. This institutionalized class warfare, carried out under the cover of fiscal probity, has led to widespread questioning of the nature and purpose of the liberal institutions the EU represents.
Across the U.S. and Europe cottage industries have arisen proclaiming critiques of the EU, globalism and liberalism / neoliberalism to be the work of nascent fascists and neo-fascists. While historical parallels exist, missing is analysis of the parallel failures (then and now) of neoliberal policies as well as a social accounting for the consequences of these failures.
More pointedly, such claims require historical parsing that lacks a cohesive logic outside of political posturing. American slavery and genocide against the indigenous population constituted the initial conditions of American industrial success going into the early twentieth century. Considered in combination with the scientific racism of eugenics, contemporaneous American imperial endeavors and oligarchic control over the U.S. economy going into the Great Depression, the Nazi political program looked remarkably similar to the American program.
Additionally, the genesis of racialized violence in economic relations has been materially misrepresented in current accounts of the rise of European fascism. This history is given substance in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Mr. Zinn provides evidence of race being knowingly used by capitalists to divert attention away inconvenient class interests. This history places the modern Democrat’s use of identity politics in a different light. Dog whistles and identity politics are premised in pre-existing and concrete racial divisions.
In contrast to white nationalism, these divisions can have a social basis, rather than in ‘nature.’ This would seem to make racial identity more malleable, and therefore more amenable to being resolved. But as establishment Democrats demonstrated through their use of dog whistles and racialized policies, rhetorical compounding can put a superficially respectable face on racialized violence. The professional class can respond to ‘crime’ without considering its history as a strategy of racialized economic taking, its genesis in capitalist class relations, or the violence inherent in policing and incarceration.
The Democrat’s apparent strategic confusion in putting Joe Biden forward as the establishment candidate should put an end to identity politics as more than cover for the class interests that the Democrats represent. The studied ignorance embedded in the question: ‘If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end racism’ is oblivious to the relationship between Bill Clinton’s neoliberal programs and his racially targeted public policies. Given the historical use of racial division as a tool of class control, the correct answer is yes, breaking up the big banks would be a step toward ending racism.
None of this is to pick on the Democrats per se. Republicans have long fostered / aligned with white nationalism. But again, given the historical genesis of the idea of race, what this suggests is that both political parties serve the interests of capital. Moral distinctions between pandering to white nationalists and the use of dog whistles and racially targeted public policies depend on parsing history in ways that the political elevation of Joe Biden calls into question.
The bitter rhetorical battle over the use, or even the theoretical coherence, of identity politics, has had no apparent impact on the Western political establishment’s march into the abyss. A quick bet is that part of the political calculus behind the elevation of Mr. Biden is that he wouldn’t hesitate to use dog whistles, racially divisive language and xenophobia if he thought it would help him win the election. The conceit that such would only be a tactic was belied when Bill Clinton used it to craft punitive policies like ending welfare and the Crime Bill.
The West, led by liberal / neoliberal establishments, is in a terrible way. As recent European elections demonstrate, the rise of hard-right governments has followed serial public disappointment with their liberal / neoliberal predecessors. Far from being irrational rejection of functioning liberalism, it is the inability of liberals to accept and address the consequences of their own mal-governance that is leading the move rightward.
Bill Clinton’s answer to Reaganism was to triangulate Reaganite policies from the right. Joe Biden is a product of this same time, place and ethos. Whomever the Democrat’s choice for president ends up being, without a fundamental redistribution of political power, the outcome will be the same— a long march into the political abyss.