Monday, November 21, 2016
I'M WITH HIM: IDENTITY POLITICS GOES HOME
by Richard King
"So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a Boggart?"
Hermione put up her hand.
"It's a shape-shifter," she said. "It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most."
"Couldn't have put it better myself," said Professor Lupin, and Hermione glowed. "So the Boggart sitting in the darkness within has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. Nobody knows what a Boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears."
—J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
So here we are, standing before the wardrobe, pens at the ready, waiting ... Intermittently the heavy doors fly open to reveal – what? A crisis of US democracy. A crisis of neoliberalism. The disgrace of the mainstream media. Racism. Misogyny. Thus does the election of Donald Trump assume the shape of the thing we most fear, or the thing that most obsesses us. Again and again it shoots from the gloom. Showbiz values. Class war. Fascism.
It is with a certain diffidence, then, that I offer my own analysis, which I'm aware says as much about me and my politics as it does about the rise of the Donald. But everyone else is having their say, so I'll be buggered if I'm going to deny myself mine. This result was about a lot of things – all of the above, in fact. But we won't begin to understand it unless we understand as well the profound limitations of identity politics and its proper place on the ideological spectrum, which is to say the right.
Is it true, as some commentators have averred, that Trump's election represents, in part, a rejection of Clintonite posturing on issues of equal rights and diversity? Yes, it is. Does it follow that equal rights and diversity are regarded as marginal or unimportant by everyone who rejected that posturing? No, it doesn't. There is clearly a nativist, misogynistic strain that runs through Trump's supporter-base; but there is also a large constituency of people who regard Hillary Clinton's stand on these issues as self-serving and even fraudulent. If progressives are serious about building a movement to unseat Trump at the next election they should begin by considering whether they might have a point.
Let's be clear: intellectually and morally, the case for equal rights and pay and representation and everything else, for women and minorities, is unassailable. Females are not inferior to males and brown people are not inferior to pink ones, and anyone who thinks otherwise needs to find a library, sit down in it, and read some books on race and gender written in the last half-century by people who know what they're talking about. Racism, sexism and homophobia are cancers on the body politic and no opportunity to shrink them should be missed.
But there is a difference – one lost on many modern progressives – between the natural and necessary solidarity that emerges from within a discriminated-against group and is taken up by progressives more broadly, and the belief that the most important thing about you, politically and psychologically, is the amount of melanin in your skin or the shape and function of your genitalia. Roughly speaking – very roughly speaking – the first group sees the fight against prejudice as folded into the broader fight for universalism and redistributive justice, while the second sees identity issues as something politically separate from it. To put it another way: proponents of anti-discrimination tend to stress the foundational role of economics in inequality, while proponents of identity politics, at least in its progressive form, tend to stress the role of culture, and of language in particular.
Clinton falls into the second group. In both the primaries and the presidential campaign, she more than implied that a vote for her was a vote for women and minorities everywhere. From the vacuous slogan "I'm with her" to her crass attempts to tie her own ascendancy to the hopes of women and girls the world over, she signalled this credo time and again. More: she used it to belabour those who suggested that a more appropriate response to the plight of poor women and minorities might be to tap the one percent for their rightful share of the surplus. The following bit of call and response, from a speech in February, is justly notorious:
CLINTON: "Not everything is about an economic theory, right? If we broke up the big banks tomorrow – and I will, if they deserve it [sic], if they pose a systemic risk [sic], I will – would that end racism?"
CLINTON: "Would that end sexism?"
CLINTON: "Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?"
CLINTON: "Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?"
CLINTON: "Would that solve our problem with voting rights, and Republicans who are trying to strip them away from people of colour, the elderly, and the young?"
This is, as you will have noticed, horseshit: no Sandernista worth her salt would suggest for a second that breaking up the big banks would "end" any of the evils mentioned above, though she might suggest that doing so would have a more immediate effect on women and minorities' material circumstances than a century's worth of "advocacy". But never mind all that for now; the important thing about Clinton's remarks is that they go to something very important about (progressive) identity politics in general: its striking compatibility with the ideological underpinnings of neoliberal capitalism.
In his recent book Listen, Liberal Thomas Frank describes a visit to a Clinton Foundation "No Ceilings" conference in New York in March 2015. Co-organised by Melinda Gates, this conference was a celebration of businesswomen from around the world and aimed above all to promote the idea that women's representation in business has the power to lift all female boats: a sort of trickledown feminism that assumes "a naturally occurring solidarity between the millions of women at the bottom of the world's pyramid and the tiny handful of women at its very top". As Frank suggests, such an ideology could only occur amongst a political milieu convinced of the primacy and goodness of the market, and of the essential separability of female disadvantage from it. He reserves a special animus for the liberal fetish of microcredit, which sanctifies individual endeavour and downplays the role of collective politics in the fight for radical redistribution. Microlending, he writes, "is a perfect expression of Clintonism, since it brings together wealthy financial interests with rhetoric that sounds outrageously idealistic. Microlending permits all manner of networking, posturing, and profit taking among the lenders while doing nothing to change actual power relation – the ultimate win-win." (All the evidence, by the way, is that it doesn't work.)
So: business-as-usual capitalism, with a bit of feminism (or whatever) thrown in. That is the modern liberal stitch-up for which Clinton is/was the poster-girl, and those asking themselves whether Trump's supporters were rejecting neoliberalism or Clinton-style "political correctness" should appreciate just how yoked together those two things are in the Clintonite mind. Clinton, who noisily defended her husband and principal political ally as he deregulated US banks and tossed thousands of poor Americans off welfare and condemned thousands of others, mostly young black men, to a lifetime in the prison system – who helped to create, in other words, the very crisis through which the US is now passing – offered more free-market economics and a feel-good politics of diversity. And the US elected a protectionist and America-First style nativist. Good work.
Clinton's failure can be simply stated: it is the failure to set racial and gender equality in a broader economic context and to convince the electorate of the deep connection between issues of racial and sexual justice and economic redistribution. Some Americans were always going to believe that electing a woman President would constitute a victory in itself, while others were always going to reject Clinton on the basis of her sex alone. But enough Americans looked at Clinton, and then at their mounting debts and dwindling pay packets, and then at the current President, whose minority status seems to be perfectly compatible with a forgiving attitude to the major banks, and declined to believe that their tatty wagons could be hitched to Hillary's rising star. Meanwhile, and perhaps taking the Clintonite fusion of neoliberal economics and identity politics to heart, other, more suggestible types fell in behind the whole blue-lives-matter/bad-hombres/Muslim-deportation-squad shtick and evolved an identity politics of their own based around white, largely male, self-pity. Well, that was always going to happen: identity politics, after all, is invariably more at home on the far right, where a belief in the primacy of race and sex and ethnicity is always easier to sell.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx writes that those learning a new language invariably begin by translating it back into the language they already know. Certainly there has been a bit of that in the aftermath of Trump's election, as the activists who prattled about "brocialism" and "Bernie's bros" and "brogressives" in the primaries now cast Trump's victory as a vote against women, dismissing the female vote for Trump as "internalised misogyny". But do we really think that Elizabeth Warren would have attracted anything like the hostility directed at Clinton II? No doubt the vote against Hillary was laced with sexism, conscious and unconscious; but progressives who persist in the belief that sexism was the principal reason for Clinton's defeat are missing the point all over again. The kind of capitalism we've had for nearly four decades has not just "ceased delivery"; it has ruined the lives of millions. The Democrats had better offer them something, or get out of the road and make way for a left that knows that in order to smash the ceiling you also need to raise the floor.
It isn't just in the US that the far right is doing well. As I write this, the French electorate is openly flirting with the possibility of Marine Le Pen for President (I wonder, is her slogan Je suis avec elle?), while in Hungary, Finland, Germany, Austria, Greece and many other countries the far right is making massive strides. In every case, and in fine rightwing style, economic grievances are cynically conflated with anxieties about immigration and the dilution of national "character". It is the left's job not just to reject that conflation but to argue, further, that the poor of one country have more in common with the poor of another than they do with their own economic elites, who have long practised a policy of open borders as far as their own money is concerned. Only when it gets back to that will it send these snarling monsters whizzing, like burst balloons, back into the box.
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Posted by Richard King at 12:25 AM | Permalink