A San Francisco teacher named Ingrid Seyer-Ochi explored with her class the way people react differently to the appearance of women and men in power. To me, it seemed like a productive conversation and a progressive one. For the anti-woke establishment, there was no greater sin.
Take this brilliant subversion of the popular narrative by our teacher: “I don’t know many poor, or working class, or female, or struggling-to-be-taken-seriously folk who would show up at the inauguration of our 46th president dressed like Bernie. Unless those same folk had privilege. Which they don’t.”
I don’t think we don’t need to spend too much time on why people were triggered by identity politics because I actually think there’s something new going on in this example. But a brief reminder of what continues to resurface. A teacher has the opinion that women and men are treated differently and there is immediate outrage over the “weaponized identity politics” or something. In reality the outrage against the teacher is the best proof that she is tapping into the dynamics of power in a way most of the anti-woke opinion makers don’t get.
If the teacher really held the ruling class position why was she universally maligned? Furthermore the occupation of the dissenter is fascinating. Teachers are strongly for Bernie. And for good reason.
What was the appeal of the mittens? It was exactly this minimalist aesthetic that Seyer-Ochi referenced. If a working class person had shown up to the inauguration in this attire how would this have gone? On the other hand Bernie was a breath of fresh air here precisely because he did what the rest of us couldn’t.
Indeed Bernie here represents an entry point into something more radical. In 2016 the gripe against Bernie was that he was a class reductionist. Unfortunately many who claim to be on the left bite the bait and say that the one forgotten point in “neoliberal ideology” is class.
Putting class on this island is exactly what the ruling class wants and indeed exactly the rules the ruling class set. Fortunately, this false divide was disproven by an outpouring of young women of color leaders being the most progressive voices in 2018 and 2020.
Predictably they were dismissed for being too woke. Even the Jewish man Bernie Sanders was thrown under the bus for being too woke in 2020 and alienating the “real working class”. Many yearned for the simpler days of 2016 where revolution could be code for restoration of an old hat aesthetic of what working class means.
For better or worse there is no return. Among the most encouraging signs of late has been the rise of popularity of unions with a Gallup poll concluding that 65% of Americans approve of unions. But this is an extension of the woke politics not an alternative to it.
Notice that the most woke and hated political figures are also the most concretely progressive. Indeed these figures, largely the unapologetic young women of color, are the ones under the most threat of violent insurrection by the right. The fact that many on the establishment anti-woke left have embraced the same rhetoric is concerning but this does not reflect the opinion held by the leftists on the ground or in the workplace.
Liza Featherstone argued convincingly: “The far right has been obsessed with AOC since her election in 2018. Its scary fixation on her reflects its terror of women and people of color holding power, of course, but these hard-rightists are also — as fascists always have been — deeply triggered by socialism.” Notice how the right has targeted the most socialist uncompromising women of color in their violent propaganda. It is not either/or for the right. Why should it be for the left?
On the contrary, the more materialist class based left stands in solidarity with the woke intersectionality that provides solidarity for all people. It is only those who have fetishized class as an aesthetic brand who can separate it from its material binds of solidarity with the Other.
This brings us to Bernie’s mittens. Was it an aesthetic advertisement for class? One that most working people live, rather than perform? One that poor women of color would especially have trouble pulling off? Absolutely. Thank you Ingrid Seyer-Ochi.
On the other hand the anti-woke establishment needs to lighten up a little. We can have fun while acknowledging the need for good analysis. In fact analysis can be fun! To me nothing is more fun than getting under the skin of the people warning against an insurrection of woke elitists.
However, there is something more serious going on. We have a need, now more than ever, to unite as a community as capitalism hurdles us into the ecological abyss. The aesthetic of class is used as a bludgeon against poor people when it is not grounded in material analysis, which can be Marxist but has also been explored through many other theories of all backgrounds.
Slavoj Zizek argued the following about Bernie: “So, back to our starting question: the disappearance of Greta and Bernie from our public space does not mean that they were too radical for our time of viral crisis when more unifying voices are needed. On the contrary, they were not radical enough: they did not succeed in proposing a global new vision that would re-actualize their project in the conditions of epidemics.”
This is exactly the position Bernie found himself in while he argued for more police as they killed black protestors. This is not to “cancel” Bernie but more to say that we should not be afraid to take up the challenge posed to us by what Jeffrey St. Clair rightly calls a failed revolution. It was not that Bernie was too woke in 2020. It was that he didn’t go far enough in 2016. Nevertheless, he was part of the tradition of a further radicalization of society from Occupy to Sunrise.
Now we face the enormous challenge of reaching for real class wins that go beyond the aesthetic protest of dressing plainly amidst ruling class decadence. We are now forced to take the next step into a real conflict of interest with the masters of the ruling class. What happens when the interests of profit directly contradict the interests of the masses? Whether it is a pipeline, the elimination of a union or the buying of an election, the challenges are great. Rather than proclaim Bernie “canceled” and giving up we should ask how do we beat the effective propaganda against him?
It is certainly not by retreating into a “both sides” alignment with the militant right who are clearly linked to both financial and military power in a way the left would never be interested in. It is perhaps by taking the propaganda seriously, and rather than simply saying the opposite of it, we learn from it, and make it impossible to be true. In other words, we can say that Bernie’s mittens were good, but unless the revolution happens then it is even more necessary to acknowledge the mittens weren’t good enough.
Take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as an example of a more powerful response to the fascist Capitol insurrection. Rather than sit in minimalist mittens she exposed the right as the violent mob that they are. She talked with courage about her survival of sexual assault and the way in which the right wing mob had similar objectives of violent hatred, demonstrated by fellow squad member Ayanna Presley having her panic buttons taken out of her office.
The anti-woke establishment does get one thing right though. While we should not be collaborating with the grassroots fascist right the rot is far deeper. The coup at the Capitol was an inside job, with Republicans giving tours and the police handing out high fives to the mob as if they were referees and the cultists were Tom Brady. Democrats too have been calling for unity with upper class fascists precisely they are too in line with the ruling class to ever directly appeal to their own base.
Why this obsession with the anti-woke crowd? Precisely because it is the ideology being used by an anti-intellectual class of elites to justify cruelty. Violence is not just riot, it can be war, starvation, imprisonment, deportation, wage theft, water and air pollution, etc. Any ideology that makes a group disposable is a ruling class ideology, even if it is cloaked behind a vague universal aesthetic.
Of course, the only reason ideology works at all is that we are looking to explain what is really going on in a world we feel alienated from. However, if we have to explain a conspiracy of woke pedophiles taking over in order to feel like we aren’t foolish then we are running from the direct confrontation with power that presents itself plainly to all those who don’t have it.
We should be glad that Bernie, like the Emperor’s New Clothes protagonist, is opting for minimalist attire. We aren’t fools for pointing out the obvious, which is the naked cruelty of the ruling class. This need not be dressed up in fancy clothes of anti-woke hysteria, for a child could see we are merely dressing up an argument of the powerful, hoping to avoid the real more radical confrontation with power.
We run from the position of materialist solidarity not because it is too weak and adrift but because taking it up would mean the revolution would truly begin. It may be naive or childish to not be afraid of this moment yet we have no choice but to be brave and carry on against the enemy in plain sight.